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Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 27 Wellington and the Army, 1819–1841

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Secondary studies:

Fortescue gives a comprehensive account of the campaigns of the British army between Waterloo and the Crimea, but his coverage of the internal affairs of the army and the connection between it and British politics is less authoritative.   Two later specialist studies add much valuable material and insight.   An unpublished thesis by Philip Dwight Jones ‘The British Army in the Age of Reform, 1830-1854’ (PhD. Duke University, 1968) is a model of solid research and, unlike most theses, it is well written.   Jones emphasizes the conflict between the Whig and Liberal ministers of the 1830s with the Horse Guards and its defenders in the Tory party, notably Wellington; and while he is sometimes inclined to take the advantages of ‘reform’ as given, he deftly untangles the intricacies of the attempts by successive Secretaries at War to enlarge the authority of their office and reduce the independence of the Commander-in-Chief.   It is a great pity that a revised version of this thesis was not published at the time, although Jones did present some of his findings in an article ‘British Military Reform during the Administration of Lord Grey, 1830-34’ in Albion vol 4 1972. Remarkably Hew Strachan did not consult either Jones’s article or his thesis when writing his study Wellington’s Legacy. The Reform of the British Army, 1830-1854 (Manchester University Press, 1984). Nonetheless this is a solid piece of scholarship which has a stronger emphasis on the military reformers of the 1840s than the politics of the 1830s. Strachan shows that the army was much less moribund in the years immediately before the Crimea than subsequent reformers liked to suggest, and explains many otherwise obscure issues such as the rotation of regiments through colonial garrisons. The work suffers from surprising slips (most memorably the statement that the Duke of Cambridge was the son of Queen Adelaide! p 129), and more seriously from the fact that the evidence presented frequently does not support the conclusions drawn from it. Strachan’s admiration for Lord Howick (the 3rd Lord Grey) is one example, while his work begins with a remarkably vituperative attack on Wellington (p 8, 14-17) which appears to be based on the attitudes of parts of the military press in the 1840s, for none of the evidence produced in the pages which follow supports it and much completely contradicts it.

The Duke of York’s jealousy of Wellington:

Greville wrote in his journal in 1821:

The other day, as we were going to the races from Oatlands, he [the Duke of York] gave me the history of the D. of Wellington’s life.   His prejudice against him is excessively strong, and I think if ever he becomes King the other will not be Commander-in-Chief.   He does not deny his military talents, but he thinks that he is false and ungrateful, that he never gave sufficient credit to his officers, and that he was unwilling to put forward men of talent who might be in a situation to claim some share of credit, the whole of which he was desirous of engrossing himself. He says that at Waterloo he got into a scrape and allowed himself to be surprised, and he attributes in great measure the success of the day to Lord Anglesea, who, he says, was hardly mentioned, and that in the coldest terms, in the Duke’s despatch. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 24 June 1821 vol 1 p 120).

Yet Wellington’s complaint was not completely accurate. He may not have been asked his opinion over the introduction of cuirasses for the Household Cavalry, but he was certainly well aware of it before the troops were wearing them, and appears to have been involved in commissioning several prototypes: see Wellington to Sir B. Bloomfield 28 March 1821 and to Earl of Harrington, 30 March 1821 WND vol 1 p 164-5. Moreover the decision appears to have been taken, not by the Duke of York, but by George IV himself, who wished the Household Cavalry to be equipped with cuirasses in time for his coronation in 1821.

Wellington’s criticism of the Horse Guards:

Wellington was highly critical of one aspect of the management of the Horse Guards during the height of the political turmoil in 1820 telling Mrs Arbuthnot that,

at the Horse Guards they were managing the affairs of the army exceedingly ill, that they were allowing the soldiers to form combinations among each other & that, when one had a grievance, all the rest of the company made common cause with him, which was a practice subversive of all military discipline. The Duke told me he had written to Sir Herbert Taylor, pointing out to him how destructive such a system must be & strongly advising that severe measures shd be taken to put a stop to it. (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 23 September 1820 vol 1 p 38).

State of the Army between 1815 and 1841:

Later accounts of the British army in the decades after Waterloo are over-shadowed by exaggerated accounts of what happened in the Crimea, and it is often assumed that the army was intensely conservative, stagnant and resistant to change.   This is at best a great over-simplification: the army’s performance in the Crimea was better than popular accounts often suggest (the worst problems were failures by the civil departments such as the commissariat, which was the responsibility of the Treasury not the Horse Guards), and there had been much more change and innovation in the army in the forty years before it landed in the Crimea than is generally acknowledged.   The first few years after the war – as well as seeing a reduction of well over half its strength – also saw a considerable number of changes ranging from cosmetic alterations to uniforms, to the adoption of lances and cuirasses for some of the cavalry, to a revision of the basic drill book of the army.   It was significant that in the reductions to the army the 95th Rifles, which should have been one of the regiments to be abolished, was not merely spared but taken out of the line and elevated to a special status as the Rifle Brigade.   Military periodicals did not flourish in the years immediately after the war, but revived in 1827 and from then onwards there were several monthly and weekly publications appealing to officers and others interested in military affairs which often advocated reform in all areas of the army – sometimes with more enthusiasm than wisdom. (See Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 19-27 for a most interesting overview of the military press in the period). At the same time the army engaged in a number of serious campaigns in India and other colonial theatres including the Pindari War with the Marathas, and wars in Nepal, Ceylon, Burma, the Punjab, Afghanistan, China, South Africa and New Zealand; and faced war scares with France and the United States (which was complicated by the disaffection and even rebellion in Canada).   And all this took place in the context of extreme financial stringency and growing inefficiency in the civil departments whose role was to support the army.

The Regimental Depots:

The creation of the depots is sometimes attributed to Wellington (e.g. by Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 211-12) but the Duke of York’s letter to Wellington, and Wellington’s letter to Bathurst, make it clear that this was the Duke of York’s (or the Horse Guards’) plan which Wellington was endorsing and explaining, not one which he had devised. (Duke of York to Wellington 3 and 24 December 1824 WP 1/807/1 and WP 1/807/23; Wellington to Bathurst 26 December 1824 WND vol 2 p 378-80). (Fortescue, even more oddly, attributes it to Palmerston, simply because Palmerston, as Secretary-at-War was responsible for explaining it to the House of Commons: Fortescue History of the British Army vol 11 p 87-88).

In later years the depots were criticized for being too small and scattered to be useful for home defence in the event of an invasion, and there were calls to combine them into provisional battalions which was gradually done in the 1840s.   This had some considerable advantages, but also two disadvantages: the provisional battalions would be constantly disrupted by the withdrawal of companies whose regiments had returned home and the addition of others whose regiments had just sailed; and by being concentrated in a few locations they lost their ties to a particular locality which had greatly assisted their recruiting, and which had also meant that there were detachments of troops in many parts of the country ready to assist the civil power when necessary.   (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 211-17 gives a very useful, but rather one-sided account of the question which was the subject of much discussion in the 1840s).

The Appointment of Combermere to India:

Some editions of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and some other reference books give a garbled version of this story as it appears in G. W. E. Russell’s Collections and Recollections, a worthless mishmash of half remembered gossip and ill-digested reading which should have been left as the dinner table conversation where it surely originated.   In Russell’s version it was the cabinet, not the Directors of the East India Company who sought Wellington’s advice, and Rangoon, not Bhurtpore, that Combermere could capture (even though Rangoon had already been captured at the time), and Combermere’s lack of genius had been transformed into the outright statement that he was ‘a d____d fool’.   All of which improves it as an anecdote while making it less true. (George W. E. Russell Collections and Recollections [First Series] p 25).

Whether the version of the story that appears in the Memoir of Combermere by his widow and Captain Knollys is entirely accurate may also be doubted – it was recorded forty years after the event and has the ring of a story that has been improved in the telling – but the essential point that Wellington had a decisive influence over the selection of Combermere need not be doubted, and is supported by the other letters referred to in the main text. (Memoirs and Correspondence of Field Marshal Viscount Combermere… by Mary, Viscountess Combermere and Captain W. W. Knollys vol 2 p 29-30).

The Horse Guards and War Office under Canning:

In 1827, after Wellington resigned as Commander-in-Chief, Palmerston, the Secretary-at-War, commanded the army in conjunction with the Adjutant-General (Torrens) and the Quartermaster-General (Gordon).   The Military Secretary to the Commander-in-Chief (Sir Herbert Taylor) was appointed a deputy-Secretary-at-War, but continued to exercise essentially the same functions as when there was a Commander-in-Chief.   Taylor was anxious that his position not be too clearly defined, as he did not want it to become a permanent arrangement. He also made it clear that he was strongly opposed to a civilian politician being established at the head of the army except as a temporary measure.   When Canning considered promoting Palmerston he offered Taylor the position of Secretary-at-War, but Taylor declined, and urged that Canning offer it to Sir George Murray instead.   Nothing was settled, but Canning evidently considered placing it under a Board.   On 21 July 1827 Taylor wrote to Wellington: ‘We want you sadly; we want you were it but to stem the torrent of military reductions with which we are threatened. … I am doomed to be the agent in measures which I deprecate and detest … I am sick of being here under such circumstances.’ (WND vol 4 p 64; Jones ‘The British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 18-20; private information from Ron McGuigan).

Hardinge at the War Office:

It is both surprising and unfortunate that there has never been a modern scholarly biography of Hardinge, for his career is full of interest to both the military and the political historian: but like Wellington this may actually have deterred as much as it encouraged serious attention. His record at the War Office in Wellington’s government was excellent, introducing a considerable number of practical and beneficial changes to the army, while cutting costs and maintaining good relations with the Hill and the Horse Guards (see Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 25-33 for the fullest account, although it deserves a more detailed examination). However it is worth noting that Peel formed a poor opinion of his administrative abilities during the 1834-35 government when Hardinge served as Chief Secretary for Ireland (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 276, 281), and it is said that when he was appointed Commander-in-Chief after Wellington’s death, the staff at the Horse Guards grumbled at his unbusinesslike habits and disruption of routine. (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 39).

Hardinge’s Pension Scheme:

In 1828 there were 20,000 veterans who had been pensioned because of sickness or injury: their average age was 31 at discharge, and they had served for ten years on average, and received an average pension of 6d. Many had been wounded in the war and had fully recovered, but continued to receive their pension, but most had not been wounded: the pension list increased from 31,000 in 1814 to 82,000 in 1828 mostly due to the postwar reduction in the army.   Hardinge insisted that ‘worn out’ soldiers could no longer be discharged without a medical examination, and introduced a serial number for each soldier to eliminate confusion between soldiers with the same name and so reduce the scope for fraud. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 28).

In 1833 the scheme was effectively gutted by Hobhouse’s changes. ‘The 1833 warrant appalled all shades of army opinion. In military terms a soldier was worn out after twenty-one years. Only about a dozen men per regiment had served that long at any one time, and in 1845 only two of the 27,000 soldiers in the United Kingdom had served the twenty-seven years required for a shilling pension.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 69).

The strong reaction from Wellington, Hardinge and the Horse Guards forced the ministers to apply the new scheme only to new recruits, and before the first of these men had completed their twenty-one years of service Hobhouse’s ‘reforms’ were substantially altered, although the new arrangement still fell well short of Hardinge’s arrangement.   Nonetheless it is hard to give the Whigs and other reformers much credit for sincerity when they claimed to want to improve the lives of soldiers and the quality of recruits, when this single change would have ensured that the vast majority of soldiers leaving the army were condemned, not merely to poverty, but to little short of destitution.

The claim that Wellington neglected the veterans of his army:

Fortescue claims that Wellington ‘deliberately alienated any affectionate feeling of all ranks from him; and, when the war was over, he parted from his soldiers without regret and never troubled himself about them again.’ (Fortescue History of the British Army vol 10 p 224).   And Sir Charles Oman quotes the following passage from Grattan’s memoir, evidently accepting its fairness: ‘In his parting General Order to the Peninsular Army he told us that he would never cease to feel the warmest interest for our welfare and honour. How that promise has been kept every one knows. That the Duke of Wellington is one of the most remarkable (perhaps the greatest) men of the present age, few will deny. But that he neglected the feelings of his Peninsular army, as a body, is beyond all question. And were he in his grave to-morrow, hundreds of voices that now are silent would echo what I write.’ (Grattan Adventures in the Connaught Rangers p 332 quoted in Oman Wellington’s Army p 49). (In fact this is more a paraphrase than a quotation, and what Grattan actually wrote, in the edition edited by Oman himself was: ‘How these promises have been kept is too well known, and it is difficult to say whether that he ever made them, or never kept them, is to be regretted most. However, the Duke of Wellington, no doubt, does not put the same construction on his words, and on his acts, that others do; and it will be the task of the historian and posterity to deal with a matter which can be better judged of by unbiased persons than by the parties interested. That the Duke of Wellington is one of the most remarkable, and perhaps the greatest man of the present age, few will deny; but that he has neglected the interests and feelings of his Peninsular army, as a body, is beyond all question; and were he in his grave tomorrow, hundreds of voices, that are now silent, would echo what I write.’ (Grattan Adventures in the Connaught Rangers p 332).)

It is not entirely clear what the purport of Grattan’s accusation actually is: how did Wellington ‘neglect the feelings of his Peninsular army, as a body’ in later years?   This does not seem to be an accusation of neglect or lack of charity towards individuals, and once the army was broken up, what more could Wellington do for it ‘as a body’.   The only explanation which fits the precise charge, and which is echoed in other sources, is the resentment many Peninsular veterans felt at the granting of the Waterloo Medal (and two years seniority) for veterans of that battle, while they received nothing.   This was finally corrected with the issuing, in 1848, of the General Service Medal with its bars for each action, the year after Grattan’s memoir was first published.   This is also the only allegation of neglect towards veterans that appears in other memoirs, and the famous reproach that ends the main narrative of Napier’s History, ‘Thus the war terminated, and with it all remembrance of the veteran’s services,’ is directed at the British government and nation, not Wellington in particular.

As for the substance of the allegation made by later writers such as Fortescue, it is well answered by Muriel Wellesley in her Wellington in Civil Life:

But if the Duke could not always be amongst his old comrades he never forgot their welfare, and all the patronage that came from his hand was invariably given to the deserving officer or soldier. “I never give anything that falls in my gift excepting to an officer or soldier of the Army…” he wrote to Colonel Fremantle in 1836 – a date far enough removed from 1815 to show that the welfare of the military man was still his first concern.


In countless small ways, too, he showed that his old soldiers were always in his thoughts; many indeed came to see him, and one of his servants at Strathfield Saye states that “the Duke was very good to them, would talk to them and give them dinner and money.”

It is also a well-known fact that he always kept a supply of sovereigns in his waistcoat pocket in case he met an old soldier who had served under him. “He used to laugh at himself for doing so,” says Gleig, “and acknowledged that it was ten to one against the object of his bounty deserving it; but nothing would induce him to omit the practice.”

Whenever possible, his servants were old soldiers. “Among the staff at the Castle [Walmer]” says one of his great-nieces, “were many old soldiers, including Townsend the gardener who had been the Duke’s orderly at Waterloo, and Christopher, his valet, who was with him at his death.”

In connection with the appointment of Townshend [sic], who was a great character, the story is told that “when the Duke proposed to make him gardener at Walmer, he objected that he knew nothing of gardening…. “Nor more do I,” replied the Duke, “but you can learn.” And Townshend did learn, and made in the end an excellent gardener. (Wellesley Wellington in Civil Life p 7-9: which gives additional examples and proper citations for the quotations; see also Stanhope Notes 26 October 1839 for Wellington’s use of his patronage as Constable of the Tower to provide for old soldiers, whereas his predecessors had sold these appointments).

This was hardly a man who ‘parted from his soldiers without regret and never troubled himself about them again.’   Indeed it is possible that Wellington might be criticized for favouring the claims of officers and men who had served under his command at the expense of those who, through no choice of their own, had served in India, North America or some tropical garrison throughout the final years of the war, without the opportunity of bringing themselves to his notice. But this would require a detailed study of the appointments he made as Commander-in-Chief between 1842 and 1852 to either substantiate or disprove; a study which has yet to be undertaken.

Wellington and Hill:

In 1839 Wellington told Lord Mahon: ‘When I left the command of the army, I declared that I never would interfere in any appointment or other military matter, unless when applied to for my opinion and advice – and I never have. I have very often stated my views and given my advice – but never unless I was applied to.’ (Stanhope Notes 29 October – 4 November 1839 p 193-4). This was probably close to the truth, but it is equally clear that both Somerset and Hill were eager to consult Wellington on many subjects. Still the suggestion that Hill had no independent autonomy was as wide of the mark as that Wellington had no influence. Mrs Arbuthnot recorded a telling incident in 1829:

One topic of abuse chosen by the D. of Cumberland against the Duke is to say that he takes all the patronage of the army & won’t allow Ld Hill to have any. This was repeated to Ld Hill who, on the first opportunity, attacked the D. of C[umberland] with more spirit than I shd have thought he wd. have shewn. He said H.R.H.’s observations had been repeated to him & he begged to assure him that, so far from interfering with the patronage of the army, the Duke had never, since he quitted the army, applied for but one cornetcy, and that he had not yet got! & that he never interfered in any way whatever.   The D. of C[umberland] replied, “Oh, by God! I never said any thing & meant nothing.” To which Ld Hill replied, “Yes, Sir, but you did say so & I beg Your Royal Highness to remember what I have said, which is the strict truth.” (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 12 March 1829 vol 2 p 253).

Relations between Hill and the Whig Government:

In March 1833 Wellington told Somerset ‘Do what I will I cannot keep clear of Lord Hill’s Affairs … Nobody will believe that I do not command.’ (Quoted in Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 6).   No doubt he realized that this belief was damaging Hill, at least in the eyes of members of the government.   A few weeks later William Holmes, the Tory whip, told Wellington, ‘From what I could infer from a long conversation with Ellice on Tuesday last, Lord Hill’s reign at the Horse Guards is drawing to a close.’ (Holmes to Wellington, 11 April 1833, HMC Wellington vol 1 p 200-201).

In late 1833 Grey asked Hill to appoint another of his family connection, General Ellice, to the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Portsmouth.   Hill agreed, but the proposed appointment was strongly criticized in the press, and Grey asked Hill to defend it publicly. Hill declined, saying that while Ellice was qualified for the position he was not the officer he would have chosen if Grey had not intervened.   Faced with this Grey withdrew his application on Ellice’s behalf, but the incident added to ill-feeling on both sides. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 39-40).

At the end of 1833 Sir James Graham, who had forced ‘reforms’ through the Admiralty, regretted the failure of cabinet to agree to expand the power of the War Office, and in particular the loss of the opportunity to force Hill from office ‘a measure, which I conceive almost necessary for the existence of the Administration’. He had hoped to replace him with Sir James Kempt. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 104).

In 1835 Joseph Hume ‘demanded that the Commander-in-Chief should be politically attached to the administration, and pointed, rather dubiously, to the example of Marlborough’s removal for political reasons [as a precedent]. … In 1837 Hume renewed his attack, and Roebuck, more bluntly, said, ‘The army has been made a mere appanage to a family hostile to the popular cause.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 7).   Consequently Lord John Russell reported that one way of gaining radical support would be to remove the Tories from ‘political command of the Army’, and that this would have the added advantage of increasing the government’s patronage. Philip Jones writes, ‘Russell was sure that the Horse Guards would never favor a Whig. He said that everyone believed governmental support was “nearly fatal to a man who wants a favor at the Horse Guards.”’ And ‘I find a growing impression that the Horse Guards employ patronage for the sake of injuring the Ministry.’ (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 111-112).   It is impossible to test this accusation thoroughly without a very detailed study of all the appointments, both honorary and active, made by the Horse Guards over the period of the Whig government, but the prominent positions given to a number of soldiers with close ties to the government or radical sympathies, including Lord Vivian, Lord William Bentinck, Sir John Byng (Lord Strafford), Charles Napier (and even his brother William) cast doubt on its accuracy. Certainly Wellington believed exactly the reverse, complaining in 1838 ‘of the shameful use made by the Whigs of patronage in the Army and Navy for party purposes, and the contrast it presented to former practice.’ (Lady Salisbury’s diary, 15 April 1838, Oman Gascoye Heiress p 280).

Soldiers in Parliament, 1820-32:

Unfortunately the History of Parliament analysis of MPs stops at 1832, but its study of the period 1820-32 suggests that army officers who were also MPs were less conservative than might have been expected given the strength of Whig and radical attacks on the army (which in turn suggests that their primary allegiance was not to the army as an institution).   Just over 250 MPs who sat in the Commons at some point between 1820 and 1832 had been officers in the regular army at some time in their lives (that is 18 per cent of all MPs, the same proportion as for 1790-1820).   About thirty members of the Commons had fought at Waterloo, and at least half a dozen had been wounded there. There was a gradual decline in the number of MPs who were officers available for active service: 75 at the election of 1820 falling to 45 in 1831, which probably reflects a growing sense that either position would interfere in the duties of the other in a way which was becoming less acceptable as the nineteenth century progressed.   Two thirds of the actively serving officers who were MPs favoured the Liverpool, Canning and Wellington governments, but the proportion of Whigs and radicals among the military MPs was actually higher than in the previous period.   A number of military MPs were also Radicals including Thomas Davies, George De Lacy Evans and Ronald Ferguson who was nonetheless made colonel of the 79th Foot in 1828 thanks to Wellington and Hill who overcame the King’s objections (another example of their commitment to bestowing military patronage on the basis of military merit not political allegiance). (Fisher History of Parliament 1820-32 vol 1 p 266-67).

Recruits for the army:

Wellington was not alone in expressing a poor opinion of the great majority of recruits joining the British army: in 1826 the Duke of York told the Home Secretary, ‘Our regiments are generally speaking composed of the lowest and most thoughtless part of the community who are induced to enlist from some momentary motive mostly arising from the desire to extricate themselves from some scrape … Such people can be restrained by nothing but the strong hand of power.’ (Quoted in Dinwiddy ‘Early Nineteenth Century Campaign against Flogging in the Army’ p 137).

The Campaign against Flogging:

There is an excellent account of the campaign by J. R. Dinwiddy ‘The Early Nineteenth Century Campaign against Flogging in the Army’ (reprinted in his Radicalism and Reform in Britain, 1780-1850 from first publication in English Historical Review vol 97 1982 p 308-331).

According to Dinwiddy flogging in the army had become the subject of intense popular dislike by the end of the eighteenth century, although he does not cite a great deal of evidence to support this, other than the opinion of the historian E. P. Thompson (p 126).   It is clear, however, that flogging in the navy produced much less opposition, possibly because it was less visible and sailors were much more a group apart.   In 1804 Sir Robert Wilson published a pamphlet urging – not its abolition, but a considerable reduction in its use.   This provoked several debates in parliament, but no action was taken. In early 1807, when the Ministry of All the Talents was in office, a General Order to the army was issued by the Horse Guards expressing the King’s opinion that a sentence of 1,000 lashes was ‘a sufficient example for any breach of military discipline, short of a capital offence’; however higher sentences continued to be passed (p 128).   Further public discussion, prompted by newspaper coverage of several cases over the next few years prompted small concessions: in 1811 the Mutiny Act was altered to allow imprisonment as an alternative to flogging, and in 1812 regimental courts martial were limited to awards of no more than 300 lashes.   In June 1815 the Judge Advocate ruled that the widespread practice of taking a man down when he could endure no more, waiting until his injuries had healed, and then inflicting the remainder of the sentence, was illegal, and the Commander-in-Chief accepted this ruling.   In 1813 the Commons was told that heavy sentences had become much less common as many serious offenders were instead accepting the alternative of indefinite service abroad: an option which had been created by the new General Regulations and Orders of the Army published in 1811 (p 130-1).

There was a lull in the campaign between 1815 and 1822 with the radicals being hostile to the army in toto and concentrating on cutting its funding.   When Burdett gave notice of a fresh motion on the subject in 1823 Palmerston urged the Duke of York to reduce the number of lashes a regimental court martial could award to 200 as it would be ‘very useful’ to be able to announce this in the Commons; however the Horse Guards refused, and Burdett did not proceed with his motion.   Hume took up the question in 1824, and followed it up in most of the following years of the decade. In 1826 his motion gained a significant minority: it was defeated 99 votes to 52 and this led Hardinge to urge privately that very considerable concessions be made in order to save ‘this indispensable power’. (Hardinge favoured adopting the Prussian system where soldiers were divided into two classes: those with a good record could not be flogged, but would lose this privileged status if they offended. Wellington opposed this idea, for reasons that are given in the main text, although at this point it was the opposition of the Duke of York that was decisive.) (Dinwiddy ‘Campaign against Flogging’ p 131-2; Hardinge to Sir Herbert Taylor, 16 March 1836, WND vol 3 p 198-201).

It is clear that Palmerston was a poor defender of the army in the Commons on the question of flogging (as indeed he was in general).   Rather than mount a case for its necessity he admitted that it was an evil belonging to ‘barbarous ignorant times’ and counterproductive. (Bourne Palmerston p 138-42).

In 1830 the Whig soldier Sir John Byng declared that ‘the punishment is not now inflicted to one-fiftieth part of the extent it used to be’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 80); but the advent of Grey’s government led to fresh pressure on the question. In 1832 Hobhouse reduced the number of lashes that a regimental court martial could award from 300 to 200, and was only prevented from resigning over his inability to persuade his colleagues to force the Horse Guards to accept greater restrictions by the timely offer of a more senior position.  In 1833 a radical motion limiting flogging in the UK to cases of mutiny, thieving and drunkenness on guard divided the government’s supporters and was only narrowly defeated 151 to 140 and the prospect of further pressure on these lines led Hill to issue orders restricting the crimes that could be punished by flogging to mutiny, insubordination, violence to a superior, drunkenness on duty, disorderly conduct, and the sale or stealing of arms, ammunition, accouterments, and necessaries. Public discussions, adverse publicity and a general change of attitude all contributed to a considerable further reduction of flogging, as was shown by the evidence presented to the Royal Commission. (Dinwiddy ‘Campaign against Flogging’ p 132-33; Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 46-47, 69-70).

In July 1834 there was an outcry in the press when a private received 300 lashes for being drunk on duty and attempting to strike his sergeant. ‘A particularly lurid report of the flogging appeared in a popular radical paper, the True Sun, and was reprinted as a leaflet, and the incident provoked several petitions to parliament: 1648 inhabitants of Oxford, for example, signed a petition denouncing “a disreputable, cowardly, unmanly, unfeeling, brutal, inhuman and bloody mode of punishment.”’   In response to this outcry the government announced that it would appoint a commission to inquire into the military code, although the actual appointment was not made until the following March when Peel was in office. (Dinwiddy ‘Campaign against Flogging’ p 134).

While Dinwiddy clearly sympathizes with the campaign against flogging and gives its advocates great credit for the change of attitude which ultimately led to its abolition, he acknowledges that the reformers ‘tended to be at their least effective in situations … where reasoned arguments counted for very much more than appeals to visceral feeling’, and that they relied upon arousing ‘an emotional reaction’. (Dinwiddy ‘Campaign against Flogging’ p 142 and p 147-8 for their effectiveness in the longer term).

According to Jones the government approached Wellington asking him to chair the commission but he refused (this was before the end of August 1834). (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 70).

The Commission recommended a further reduction in the number of lashes that different types of court martial could award: regimental courts martial, 100; district courts martial, 150; general courts martial 200.   This proved enough to quieten the issue for a few years, but it revived in the 1840s.   The use of flogging gradually declined and was finally abolished in 1881 (Dinwiddy ‘Campaign against Flogging’ p 125, 135).

Wellington’s praise for his Peninsular Army:

In his evidence to the Commission on Military Punishments, Wellington paid warm tribute to his army in the Peninsula:

Q. Towards the latter time of your service in the Peninsula, was corporal punishment very frequent in the Army, or more frequent than it had been in the beginning? A. I cannot say that I know exactly how it was in the regiments. I rather believe it was not so frequent. I am positively certain that crime had most enormously diminished; that there was not one crime for one hundred that there were in the beginning of the time. I think my orders shew it. There was a man convicted of robbery, and I pardoned him, because the crime had become so rare. There are things of that sort that shew clearly, that by discipline, and by care and attention, the Army was brought into such a state of discipline, that every description of punishment was almost discontinued altogether

Q. Do you conceive that the Army, when it left [sic – entered] France from the Pyrenees, was in as efficient state for service as an Army can well be brought to? A. I always thought that I could have gone anywhere and done anything with that Army. It was impossible to have a machine more highly mounted and in better order, and in a better state of discipline than that Army was. When I quitted the Army upon the Garonne, I do not think it was possible to see anything in a higher state of discipline; and I believe there was a total discontinuance of all punishment. (Wellington’s evidence in the Report of the Commission on Military Punishments Parliamentary Papers 1836 vol 22 p 327).

Wellington’s attitude to flogging:

In 1816 Wellington wrote to Colville, commanding one of the divisions of the Army of Occupation:

I don’t know why you disapproved of the sentence of 800 lashes, as it is strictly legal, and in my opinion a punishment much more likely to operate as an example than that of transportation. I dislike the punishment of flogging as much as others, but I dislike crime still more, and I must say that our squeamishness about corporal punishment of late years, and our substitutes for it such as transportation, general service, marking [branding] with the letter D., etc., are an encouragement rather than an example to prevent crime with the majority of our drunken soldiers, who are indifferent about everything excepting drink and vanity. (Wellington to Colville, 25 September 1816 in Colville Portrait of a General p 216-17).

But in July 1813 Larpent noted that Wellington thought that many offences would be best dealt with by regimental not general courts martial ‘as three hundred lashes was as good as a thousand’. (Larpent Private Journal vol 2 p 6-7).

William Napier, that ardent devotee of Sir John Moore, wrote home to his wife in April 1812 when he had just taken command of the 43rd after the storm of Badajoz, that the storm and sack of the town ‘has so disorganized [the regiment] for a time, that I have been forced the two first days of my command to punish three of [the men] by that most infamous manner of flogging, which is now doubly so from the gallantry of their conduct at the storm; but robbery and insolence to their officers are crimes not possible to be forgiven.’ (Napier to his wife, 29 April 1812 in Bruce Life of William Napier vol 1 p 90).

Reaction to Wellington’s evidence to the Commission on Military Punishments:

Creevey commented to his stepdaughter: ‘I declare I have not read anything for ages that has interested me so much as the Duke of Wellington’s examination in the Times of today. It is the image of him in his best and most natural state, and very entertaining and instructive.’ (Creevey to Miss Ord, 22 March 1836 Creevey Papers p 652).

Wellington on the importance of Discipline:

In a speech on the presentation of new colours to the 93rd Highlanders at Canterbury on 7 October 1834 Wellington is reported to have said:

It is not by … native gallantry, it is not by the exertion of bodily strength … that bodies … can contend effectually … bodies of men … must get into confusion unless regulated by discipline; unless accustomed to subordination, and obedient to command. I am afraid that panic is the usual attendance upon such confusion. It is then by the enforcement of rules of discipline, subordination, and good order, that such bodies can render efficient service to their King and Country; and can be otherwise than a terror to their friends, contemptible to their enemies, and a burthen to the State. The rules of discipline, subordination, and good order teach the Officers their duties towards the soldiers; and how to render them efficient, and to preserve them in a state of efficiency to serve the State. They teach the soldiers to respect their superiors the non-commissioned Officers and the Officers; and to consider them as their best friends and protectors. The enforcement of these rules will enable the officers to conduct with kindness towards the soldiers those duties with which he is charged; and to preserve him in a state of health and strength; and in a state of efficiency as regards his arms, ammunition, clothing, and equipments, to perform the service required from him, without undue severity, or unnecessary restraint or interference with his habits … There may be some whose youth, indiscretion, or bad habits may lead into irregularities. These must be restrained: discipline, subordination, and good order must be established among all. (Quoted in Haythornthwaite Armies of Wellington p 66 from the report in the United Service Journal).

Wellington and Soldiers’ Protests:

In late 1831 Wellington as Colonel of the Grenadier Guards was advised that at a review of the regiment in Dublin, when asked if they had any grievances, a large number of the men of the regiment had protested, in a respectful and orderly fashion, at recent order which meant that those on guard duty would receive no hot dinner at night.  Wellington wrote to Fitzroy Somerset:

I have no remark, therefore, to make upon the order upon that subject. But I think that the subsequent transaction is worthy of notice. The Major-General [Sir Edward Blakeney] asks the men whether they have any complaints. They complain of his own order, when, instead of explaining to them the necessity or reasonableness of the order, he reproved the soldiers very sharply and dismissed them. This is not the usual way of dealing with complaints, however trifling and frivolous. Complaints are encouraged rather than discouraged in the service, and when they are made they should be received at least with temper and moderation. (Wellington to Fitzroy Somerset 7 November 1831 WND vol 8 p 38).

The Horse Guards had already written to the Irish staff stating that the original order, which caused the discontent, was undesirable (see WND vol 8 p 38).

Officers should be Gentlemen:

The Commission on Military Punishments agreed with Wellington on this, arguing that ‘officers should be of a station and education to fit them for any society in which they might be placed’. Moreover ‘ungentlemanly conduct’ was a very serious offence under military law, and that it was ‘most imperative that the line should be very strictly drawn between the officer and the soldier.’ (quoted in Dinwiddy ‘Early Nineteenth Century Campaign Against Flogging in the Army’ p 140).   And Sir John Macdonald, the Adjutant General, declared in 1840 that ‘It is the proud characteristic of the British Army that its officers are gentlemen by education, manners and habits.’ (Quoted in Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 111).   Neither Macdonald, nor Wellington, emphasized birth, it was the right education that made an officer and a gentleman: ‘There is not greater mistake,’ Wellington told Fitzroy Somerset, ‘than to suppose that the Service performed by the British Army could be carried on by any other description of Man except on educated as is an English Gentleman!’ (Quoted in Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 111).

In his evidence to the Commission Wellington also describes his surprise at observing the officer of the French army commanding his guard of honour spending the whole morning playing billiards with his men ‘and familiarities of that sort going on that were never heard of in the British service, and could not be allowed.’ (Wellington’s evidence in the Report of the Commission on Military Punishments Parliamentary Papers 1836 vol 22 p 326, 329).

The Education of Officers:

Wellington always argued that young men destined to be officers should be given a general education first and only then specialist military training.   In a will he drew up in 1807 he wrote that ‘let it not be believed that a finished classical education is not necessary for a gentleman in a military profession.’ (Quoted in Wilson A Soldier’s Wife p 101).   And in 1809 he had told the Duke of Richmond,

I am decidedly of opinion that the best thing to do with boys who are to be officers, particularly with those who are likely from their station in the country to command armies in the course of their lives, is to give them a finished education; and I would recommend you not to hurry your boys from school till their education will be more nearly complete. To see service with a regiment is important, but not when they are very young, so much so as to complete their education. (Sir A. Wellesley to the Duke of Richmond, 2 April 1809 WSD vol 5 p 633-5).

And he sent his own sons to Eton and Oxford, then Cambridge, although both were destined to serve in the army.   He did not have a particularly favourable opinion of the education offered by Sandhurst, which was indeed in a poor state in these decades thanks largely to the shortage of funds; and he greatly disliked private academies designed specifically to educate the sons of officers to join the army, arguing that they risked making officers a caste separate from the rest of society (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 128).   Hardinge agreed, advising Sir Robert Peel in 1830 not to remove his son from Eton since ‘the Education of an English Gentleman is the best ground work for an English officer. The professional knowledge is better acquired at a later period … The Commanding officers of Regts. generally find boys from a public school better officers than cadets from Sandhurst.’ (Quoted in Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 128).

The Social Background of British Officers:

The abstract of a doctoral thesis studying ‘The Infantry Officers of the Line of the British Armhy, 1815-1868’ by D. B. M. Huffer (University of Birmingham, 1995) is emphatic that, ‘The long-standing myth that the nineteenth century British Army, a career fit for gentlemen, was dominated by the aristocracy, does not bear investigation. Army careers did not attract them, nor the country gentry, though younger sons sometimes had no choice. In fact, supplementing the traditional intake of officers’ and clergymen’s sons, those of affluent, well-educated, influential middle-class families, professional at first, but then from commercial and industrial backgrounds, made their marks much earlier than previously supposed.’

Hew Strachan agrees: ‘A check of the Army List in 1847 revealed that of 5,000 infantry officers, only seventy-three were titled (including younger sons of peers), and even the allegedly exclusive cavalry and Foot Guards could muster only a further 103 aristocrats between them.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 110).

There is no doubt that the ability to purchase promotion whenever the opportunity arose became much more important after the war, when all promotion was slowed and death vacancies (which might be awarded without purchase) became relatively rare.   Officers who could not afford to purchase would spend long years vegetating, watching resentfully as their juniors overtook them. But these juniors were far more likely to be the son of a wealthy manufacturer, merchant – clergyman or farmer – than a young aristocrat.   Strachan argues that the introduction of examinations for promotion was ‘a means not only to stop the nouveau riche from buying up the army, but also to restore the sons of the professional middle class – the clerics, lawyers or soldiers, who had provided so many officers in the past – to a position of equality once again.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 140).   And in this context it is significant that Wellington was strongly – although ineffectually – opposed to the sale of commissions for above their regulated price (Wellington to Sir Herbert Taylor, 17 March 1824, WND vol 2 p 234-5).

Officers raised from the ranks:

Wellington told the inquiry into military punishments: ‘I gave commissions to a great number of non-commissioned officers, and those that were not given away to non-commissioned officers were given away to volunteers serving with the Army at the time. I gave none in this country at all.’ Nonetheless he thought that few men were able to make the transition from being a non-commissioned officer to a commissioned officer successfully.

In truth, they do not make good officers; it does not answer. They are brought into society to the manners of which they are not accustomed; they cannot bear being at all heated with wine or liquor. I have known them when I was serving in the ranks of the Army, and I think, in general, they are quarrelsome, they are addicted to quarrel a little in their cups, and they are not persons that can be borne in the society of the officers of the Army; they are men of different manners altogether

Q. Does that make them feel uncomfortable in the new situation in which they are placed? A. I think so – punctilious and uncomfortable. There are very few indeed that stay any time, or that ever rise beyond the subaltern ranks of the Army. (Wellington’s evidence in the Report of the Commission on Military Punishments Parliamentary Papers 1836 vol 22 p 329).

It would be fascinating to see if an empirical study confirmed or disproved the accuracy of these observations: certainly it cannot have been easy for a newly commissioned officer who had served some years in the ranks (and as an ordinary soldier, not a ‘gentleman volunteer’) to win acceptance from his fellow officers; while it was most unlikely that he would be able to afford to purchase promotion.

Other evidence suggests that the difficulties were real, and that the authorities contributed to them, rather than helped overcome them.   According to Strachan, ‘Even Colonel Mountain, the archetypal soldier-philanthropist, who had eight ex-rankers among his officers, found that the harmony of his regiment was disturbed and reluctantly concluded that “in nine cases out of ten a bad officer is made out of a good serjeant.” Chichester of the 81st expressed himself in similar vein: “To my great sorrow the Sergeant Major was promoted to an ensigncy in the Regt. … Promotion from the ranks is bad in every way; bad for the officers who get a vulgar set amongst them … It is bad for the men who love little indulgences which other officers give & those cannot afford. But of all I think it worst for the individual promoted: it moves them out of a sphere from which they were calculated, into one for which they are not.”’ There was not even necessarily a financial advantage: a sergeant-major received 3s. per day, a room, fuel allowances, the use of a soldier servant and free education for his children; while an ensign was paid 5s 3d a day, and from this had to contribute to the mess and the cost of the band, as well as pay for his equipment. (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 97-98).

Between 1830 and 1839 182 NCOs were given commissions, and this figure rose to 264 between 1840 and 1847. (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 98).

There is one well known example which appears to show that it was possible for a soldier to rise from the very bottom to the top of the army in this period: John Elley, the son of an eating house keeper of Furnival’s Inn, Holborn, who joined the army as a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards and rose, thanks to hard work and ability, to serve on Wellington’s staff in the Peninsula, and died a lieutenant-general and K.C.B., having also been MP for Windsor.   However if the entry on Elley in the ODNB is correct he only served a few months as a private before purchasing the position of troop quartermaster, and then proceeded to purchase each subsequent step in rank.   This suggests a much more conventional career albeit with an unusual form of entry.

The Problems facing the Navy:

The navy suffered even more than the army from a backlog of unemployed and aging officers preventing the promotion of a new generation of younger men: in 1845 the average age of the first 300 captains on the Navy List was over sixty; while in 1816 there were 851 captains on the Active List, but commands for fewer than one tenth of them.   So bad was the blockage that in 1835 a Whig First Lord of the Admiralty actually toyed with the idea of introducing purchase into the Navy to help clear the lists of aged and infirm admirals and captains. (Bartlett Great Britain and Sea Power, 1815-1853 p 45-47).

Wellington and the 1840 Commission into Military and Naval Promotions:

The problem of the lack of promotion for junior officers had actually been made worse during the 1830s when the government suspended retirement on full pay until payments on this head fell below £40,000, and by its curtailment of brevet promotions so that the number of generals (including major and lieutenant-generals) fell from 550 in 1830 to 360 in 1836 (the men who might have been promoted general remaining as lieutenant-colonels and blocking the paths of their juniors). (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 171-2).

On 27 Feb 1838 a motion by Lord G. Lennox asking for relief for marine officers passed the Commons with radical support (Joseph Hume favoured it as the marines lacked aristocratic friends!) All military and naval MPs present, except one, voted in favour, as did many government supporters and one minister.   The ministers were unsure how to react, and decided to appoint a commission to investigate the problem: the Commission on Military and Naval Promotions, and appointed Wellington to be its chairman. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 172-3).

The Commission examined the marines first, recommending that more senior officers be allowed to retire on full and half pay in order to ease the blockage at the top. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 173-4).

Then it turned its attention to the artillery and engineers. All 80 Artillery captains were over 48 years old; and on average artillery captains had served for 30 years for first captains and 19 years 10 months for second captains. The Commission recommended that one subaltern and three captains, all with many years service (20 and 24 years respectively) be allowed to retire each year; and that four field officers be retired annually on full pay if infirm.   (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 174).

The engineers were more efficient and were fully employed, but they almost all belonged to a single generation: all captains and over were 42 years old or older, the oldest captain being 55 – they had all received their commissions between 1803 and 1814. Again the Commission recommended that some be allowed to retire: two lieutenant colonels and two captains annually if infirm. The commission rejected a suggestion from the engineers that promotion be determined by merit, not seniority, as likely to create jealousy. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 174-5)

In the army the problem was less extreme but still concerning. There were over 204 lieutenants over the age of forty (cf 1,748 under forty and 1,294 under thirty); and 436 captains over the age of forty (cf 918 under forty); but, thanks to purchase, there was some fresh blood in the senior ranks: 40 majors and 46 lieutenant colonels under forty, cf 181 and 208 respectively over forty.

Between April 1834 and March 1838 there had been 1,783 promotions to ranks of lieutenant, captain or major, of which 1,377 (77 per cent) were by purchase and 406 without. Interestingly purchase was less significant in achieving the final step, to lieutenant colonel with only 39 of 67 having purchased the rank in the same period (58 per cent).

According to the Commission, one third of the army’s officers were young men, and one half were felt to be equal to any duty.   They recommended that a limited number of officers be allowed to retire on full pay: 20 lieutenant colonels, 20 majors and 115 captains (of whom no more than 45 could be brevet majors), and they recommended that War Office fees on commissions be abolished.

The recommendations for army retirement were adopted at the end of 1840 and those for the artillery and engineers a few months later; but the marines got passed over. Macaulay also stopped collecting fees for issuing military commissions on 1 July 1840 and on other documents on 1 July 1841. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 175-6)

The Commission’s recommendations were well received by the army. It had toyed with the idea of ending the promotion of half-pay officers and giving the Commander-in-Chief the power to promote younger officers above their seniors, but dropped these ideas when they encountered opposition due to fears of favouritism and cliques.

Only Wellington’s presence on the Commission allayed fears of political interference. Sir John Macdonald wrote ‘The Lord defend me from a Treasury Field Marshal recommended by a senile Commander in Chief.’ (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 177).

In 1843 Wellington argued against selection for senior officers: ‘The most fatal blow which could be given either profession would be that an officer should be promoted to be a General or an Admiral over the heads of others for no reason excepting that he was recommended by an Individual possessing influence and power in the House of Commons.’ (Wellington to Peel, 13 January 1843 BM Add Ms 40,460 cited in Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 302).

Wellington not a blind defender of purchase: would not have instituted it if starting from scratch and strongly against introducing it into the navy, but he felt that it prevented the stagnation of promotion solely by seniority and the abuses that would follow a system of selection. ‘Perhaps most important, the nation could not afford to compensate the entire officer corps for the loss of its investment in commissions.’ (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 303).

Strachan says that the 1840 Commission’s recommendations ‘also proved insufficient’. In fact only half the number of officers permitted to retire on full pay in accordance with the Commission’s recommendations actually did so, ‘because in retirement all promotion ended, whereas on half pay it did not, and because by selling out altogether an officer would procure a higher rate of income from investing the capital thus realized.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 118, 115).

But the only complete solution would have been to compel officers to retire at a certain age (higher for each rank), and buy them out.   This would have been costly and also unpopular for the reduced competition would probably have caused the over-regulation price of commissions to fall. However it does not seem that this drastic step was ever seriously considered at this time.

Longstanding hostility between the War Office and the Horse Guards:

The Deputy Secretary at War from 1827 to 1850 was Laurence Sulivan, a protégé of Palmerston’s and a liberal sympathizer whose relations with his superiors were more cordial when a liberal government was in power. Most of the other permanent officials at the War Office seem to have favoured the liberals as well, while those at the Horse Guards were more conservative. The staff of the War Office had fallen from 215 to 62 between 1815 and 1835, and Jones speculates that this had enabled Palmerston and Sulivan to remove more conservative officials while retaining those whose views were similar to their own. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 75)

When he was Secretary-at-War Hobhouse commented in his diary that ‘The turmoil, intrigue and perpetual discord between the Horse Guards and War Office are incredible.’ (Hobhouse diary 21 February 1833 quoted in Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 46).

Jones concludes: ‘The Horse Guards staff automatically rejected any measure initiated by the War Office as the opening wedge for governmental and parliamentary control of the army. On the other hand, the War Office officials automatically rejected any criticisms by the Horse Guards as being typical anti-reform, reactionary obstruction. Treasury and Ordnance involvement only aggravated the situation. …. Both the War Office and the Horse Guards claimed the credit for beneficial changes and blamed each other for failures. In this situation, the maintenance of the army was very difficult, and its reform was practically impossible.’ (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 160-1).

The Procedures at the War Office:

‘The clerks were divided into four classes, with promotion through these classes to the rank of first clerk being made by seniority until 1839. Several clerks under a senior clerk made up each of the departments in the War Office. When a letter entered the War Office, the registry department gave it a number and sent it to the appropriate department: accounts, old accounts, correspondence, etc. The particular clerk whose specialty was the subject of the letter made a recommendation and sent it with the letter to his immediate superior, who added his comments and sent it on. In this way, it worked its way up to the deputy secretary and finally to the secretary. By the time it reached the secretary, there was a bundle of minutes attached. Everyone felt bound to comment on his subordinate’s suggestions, and the result was a sort of minute-mania, which did more to hinder than to help operations.’ (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 75-76).

‘When the secretary at war wished to make a payment, he ordered the paymaster general, who ran the Pay Office, to issue a bill on the public money. However, the Audit Office, which advised the Treasury on military matters and checked the commissary accounts, might object, and the Treasury could stop payment. The Treasury also had direct control of the Extraordinary Army Estimates, that is expenses other than salaries and allowances to the troops. This arrangement resulted in constant friction between the War Office and the Treasury.’ (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 77-78).

Whig plans to increase the power of the War Office:

Sir John Cam Hobhouse, the Secretary at War from 1832 to 1833 felt that after the Reform Bill was finally passed the next priority was a ‘thorough reform … in the management of the army’. Hobhouse made little attempt to conceal his hostility to Hill and the Horse Guards, and his belief that further large reductions in military spending were essential. In January 1833 he produced a plan that would increase the power and position of the Secretary-at-War to those of ‘a great state officer’, while the role of the Commander-in-Chief would be curtailed, but the plan was checked by Hill’s opposition. (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 247).

On 4 March 1833 the Duke of Richmond, Lord John Russell and Hobhouse wrote to Grey proposing a thorough investigation into the organization of the army and it support services, suggesting the possibility of transferring the artillery and engineers from the Ordnance to the army, and replacing the Secretary-at-War with a board that would control the entire military establishment. This was essentially Hobhouse’s scheme and he was ‘eager to see a complete reorganization that would increase his authority.’   Richmond and Russell continued with the idea even when Hobhouse moved on from the War Office and was replaced by Edward Ellice. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 101-2; see also Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 247-8).

A Commission was established on 7 December 1833 consisting of Richmond, Russell, Ellice, Sir James Kempt and Sir Robert Dundas.   They met six times before Richmond resigned. According to Stanley the idea had been to create a department for the army with Richmond at its head and Ellice its representative in the Commons.   Ellice opposed establishing the Commission arguing that they already knew the problem, and that it would simply give the senior army figures time to mobilize opposition to their plans.   Even Kempt opposed the scheme, and he was not consulted about its report.   A draft was completed before Richmond’s resignation, but Kempt protested about it to Grey, and Ellice did not favour it.   Its recommendations were substantially the same as the original proposal of Richmond and Russell: consolidating the Ordnance, the pay offices, the Comptroller of Army Accounts into the War Office, which would be run by a Board with a cabinet minister at its head. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 102-4).

Cabinet rejected the draft report, but some recommendations were picked up and acted upon including a reform of military accounting, with the paymaster generals of the army, navy and ordnance being combined and the comptroller of army accounts being abolished.   These changes accepted by Peel’s government in 1834-35.   Wellington strongly opposed to any further change (Wellington to Hardinge, 14 Jan 1835 Hardinge Papers – not in HMC Wellington – Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform p 104).

When the Whigs returned to office in 1835 there were signs of a greater commitment to return to the issue: Howick took the War Office with a seat in cabinet and an understanding (or so he later claimed) that the change would be made. Russell favoured implementing the change without a parliamentary committee which would only produce more opposition. He feared that Sir Hussey Vivian, the new Master-General of the Ordnance, would be as hostile to the scheme as Kempt ‘our great stumbling block before’ had been.   But Melbourne insisted that a parliamentary committee was essential and a new commission was named on 14 December 1835 consisting of Howick, Palmerston, Russell, Lord Strafford, Thomas Spring Rice and Hobhouse. The Duke of Richmond declined an offer to serve on it.   Howick dominated this commission and prepared its draft report which was completed by October 1836.   This differed from the earlier proposal by including the whole of the existing Ordnance department in the new ministry, not just that which related to the army.   But his draft was rejected by the other commissioners who felt that it would be impossible to place the army under a civilian minister, and because they disliked boards as administrative bodies. Russell and Ellice both now favoured the creation of a new Secretary of State – and Howick also liked this idea, suggesting the board only as an interim measure. The final draft, agreed by all the commissioners, suggested a more modest consolidation of power in the hands of the Secretary at War, and the Commissariat was to be transferred from the Treasury to the Ordnance. It stressed that no change to the position of the Commander-in-Chief was contemplated, but that some one figure, preferably the Secretary-at-War, had to be made responsible for all the political and financial aspects of military administration. Nonetheless, it was clear to everyone that if the power of the Secretary-at-War was increased to this extent the Commander-in-Chief would be substantially subordinated to him. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 105-8. See also Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 249-50 who comments: ‘The scheme had many attractive aspects, but was flawed by the simple fact that its principal author and advocate was the man who stood to gain most in kudos by its implementation.’)

The Report was presented to Parliament on 9 March 1837 but Melbourne refused to bring forward a bill to implement the proposals as they did not have the support of Wellington and Peel. Nor did Melbourne like the proposals himself, and he was well aware of the King’s hostility. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform p 108-9; see also Partridge Military Planning and the Defence of the United Kingdom p 51 for the King’s opposition).

The King had expressed his hostility to any tampering with the army from the time the first Commission was established. Vivian kept him informed of the Commission’s proceedings, but other ministers were silent on the subject.   Taylor told Hardinge that the King resented the silence and discourtesy of the ministers and would delay answering any proposal that was put to him on the subject.   The King also warned Melbourne before he saw the Report that he would not sanction radical proposals. When he saw the Report he responded in a long (23 page) letter pointing out that the Report of the Commission was not supported by the evidence which it had taken, indeed it was at variance with it.   Taylor informed Hardinge of the King’s reaction and said that he would oppose any changes as far as he could without risking forcing the ministers to resign. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform p 109-10; see also Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 250).

Wellington was also firmly opposed to the plan. He had objected to Richmond’s proposal that he could not see its purpose ‘excepting it be determined hostility to every body who wears our uniform’.   He responded to the 1837 report with a memorandum in which he expressed his astonishment, and argued that the existing structure carefully distributed power in a way that would prevent any officer, civil or military, from gaining too much power.   His principal concern ‘was to keep army patronage “out of the usual course of Parliamentary and Ministerial management.”   How could the commander in chief avoid becoming “a mere instrument” in the hands of the new, powerful minister backed by the cabinet and parliament – and he pointed to the chaos and political favouritism that had existed before the Duke of York became Commander-in-Chief.   Finally, and most seriously, it would undermine the power of the Crown as it would transfer the command of the army from the King to the minister appointed by the House of Commons. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform p 10-111: see below for more on Wellington’s arguments).

The ministers had much to gain by supporting the report: it would please the radicals to attack the army and open the door to patronage – Russell claimed that the Horse Guards would never favour a Whig even going so far as to say ‘I find a growing impression that the Horse Guards employ patronage for the sake of injuring the Ministry.’   The death of the King removed one obstacle to action, and Howick endeavoured to achieve his object by sleight of hand – suggesting that the powers of his office could be altered when his appointment to the new sovereign was issued as an Order in Council, and arguing that the Tories and the army could not object to the Queen exercising her powers in this way. The new arrangement would make the Secretary-at-War, not the two Secretaries of State, the channel for all commands from the sovereign to the Commander-in-Chief, and would give him authority to issue orders to departments under the Secretaries of State, and would avoid subordinating the Secretary-at-War in any way to the Commander in Chief. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform p 111-113).

Howick pressed hard for the government to adopt his proposals, but Melbourne foresaw that they would provoke determined Tory opposition which the government was not strong enough to overcome.   Rather than risk a confrontation with Howick directly he procrastinated, asking Hill and Wellington for their opinion on the scheme.   Even Russell, who favoured the reorganization, told Howick that it was not worth the political storm it would provoke, but Howick continued to press Melbourne to agree to the plan until he finally resigned in August 1839. (Jones ‘British Army in the Age of Reform’ p 113-119, 162-4 and Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 251-4).

Hew Strachan, who is a great admirer of Howick, comments that ‘By overreaching himself in the order in council Howick had irredeemably weakened his case.’ And ‘His protestations [that he was not seeking to undermine the Horse Guards] sounded hollow both in the context of his own ambition and in the popular belief that there was an attempt to add to the already extensive scope of Grey and Whig patronage.   Although the cabinet was broadly in favour of consolidation, it could not support a scheme so badly constructed and so naked in its pursuit of power for one man.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 253).

Wellington’s memoranda on the Constitutional position of the Army:

Wellington responded to the Report of the 1837 Commission in a memorandum addressed to Fitzroy Somerset and dated 25 March 1837 in which he said

It has astonished me. I have always understood that it was a principle of the Government of this country, that he who exercised Military Command over the Army should have nothing to say to its Payment, its Movement, its Equipment, or even the Quartering thereof, excepting under the sanction of a Civil Officer, who was himself a Subordinate in the Hierarchy of Civil Office; and could not take the King’s Pleasure, excepting upon matters of account. The Secretaries of State were considered, and were, responsible upon all the larger Political questions arising out of the existence of the Army, while the Commander-in-Chief exercised the Military Command, and, under their superintendence, administered the Patronage; as well for the benefit and encouragement of the Army itself, as upon Constitutional grounds, in order to keep this patronage out of the usual course of Parliamentary and Ministerial management.

The report recommended that this deliberate dispersal of power be abandoned and that a single officer, the Secretary-at-War ‘should have the whole and sole Political and Civil control over the Army … [and] should alone take Her Majesty’s Pleasure upon Army Questions.’

Wellington argued that ‘The power which would thus be vested in this Officer would be enormous.’ And that the ‘Commander-in-Chief … would be a mere instrument in his hands’ unable to resist the wishes of a senior cabinet minister, backed by the full weight of the government, and personally controlling all the resources that the army needed.

The Master-General of the Ordnance would lose control of all the civil parts of his department and be left with nothing but the artillery and engineers: ‘he, as well as the Commander-in-Chief, must leap overboard upon the nod of the Leviathan’.

I confess that the most serious part of this affair is, that it takes the Military power of the State totally and entirely out of the hands of the Person exercising the Royal Authority, and places it in the hands of one Member of the House of Commons and of the Cabinet. This has not been; and is not the case at present. The change cannot be made in this form without injury to the power of the Crown.


In fact, this measure will transfer the effective Command of the Army from the King to the House of Commons – of which body the Secretary at War will be the most powerful Member. (Wellington Memorandum for Lord Fitzroy Somerset, 25 March 1837, printed in Clode Military Forces of the Crown vol 2 p 759-61).

            Ten months later Wellington commented, at Melbourne’s invitation, on Howick’s proposed Order-in-Council to give the Secretary-at-War control over all the civil departments relating to the army.   In this he elaborated on the constitutional relationship between the sovereign, parliament and the army as it then stood:

The Sovereign is the head of the Army. Voted by Parliament from year to year, the Sovereign exercises Her power over the Army, as she does every other, by the advice of Her confidential servants. They advise Her to select a Military Officer to exercise the command of the Army – to conduct its detail – and to recommend for Promotion and Commission, in a view to the reward of merit and to the satisfaction of just claims; and upon the Constitutional ground of preventing the application of this Patronage to Parliamentary or party purposes.


In the use of the Army the Commander-in-Chief acts, as above stated, under the direction of one of the Secretaries of State, according to the locality and nature of the Service to be performed.

In modern times care has been taken that the Commander-in-Chief shall incur no expense whatever, and shall originate no measure or alterations which shall incur expense, without consulting the Department, whether Secretary at War, Secretary of State, Treasury or Ordnance, which has the control over such expense.

The Commander-in-Chief cannot move a Corporal’s Guard from one station to another, without a Route countersigned by the Secretary at War.

This is the principle of the constitution of the British Army.

The Sovereign commands through the instrumentality of a Military Officer, who cannot move a man excepting by the aid of the Officers of Account, the Secretary at War, or incur the expense of a shilling excepting by the consent of the responsible Department concerned. (Extract of a memorandum addressed to Lord Melbourne by Wellington, 4 January 1838 printed in Clode Military Forces of the Crown vol 2 p 761-3).

Melbourne and Howick:

Howick was son of Lord Grey, Melbourne’s predecessor as Prime Minister, and had close family connections to several other leading ministers including Durham and Ellice.   He became the 3rd Lord Grey on his father’s death in 1845. Melbourne found him a difficult subordinate and soon developed

‘an aversion’ to him. He found him prim and inclined to take views on everything, and this, for Melbourne was a fault, for ‘nothing disqualifies a man from forming a sound opinion upon a question, as the persuasion that he has made himself thoroughly master of it.’ His worst fears were realized. Howick regularly complained about the Prime Minister’s system of managing the government, and frequently set off bitter inter-departmental disputes by trying to interfere in the business of other Ministers. As Melbourne was forced to arbitrate and conciliate, it seemed to some that ‘Howick, through Lord Grey, rules all things.’ When thwarted, Howick readily threatened resignation and the withdrawal of the sanction of the whole Grey clan. In June 1836, for example, he threatened to leave office over Canadian policy, complaining to Melbourne about ‘ye weakness and indecisn which has marked ye whole policy of ye Govt respecting it.’ On this occasion, Melbourne faced down this impertinence with a mixture of firmness and conciliatory words, but it was a fatiguing business. Little wonder that he should describe Howick as ‘a terrible fellow and that when he complained of not having proper influence he meant nothing short of being master of the whole administration of affairs.’ (L. G. Mitchell Lord Melbourne p 172).

            Even Strachan admits that his complete conviction of ‘the correctness of his own opinions could render him cantankerous, and “too proud & vain to like it to be supposed that he has anything to learn.” When conversing with him in 1852, the Adjutant General, Sir George Brown, an officer of Wellingtonian proclivities, found that Grey [formerly Howick] listened to his arguments “with the self complacency of a man that was fully satisfied he understood all about these matters much better than I did, & spoke with a confidence of one who, from his superior knowledge of the subject under discussion, never doubted that he had the best of the argument.” In consequence, even soldiers disposed to approve his objectives could be offended.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 17).

On 15 July 1841 Melbourne told the Queen ‘There are two things which I know hold the Govt. together; not meddling with the Horse Guards nor with the Corn Laws, and those were 2 things they were very fond of touching but which I always resisted; I knew they were 2 things that would be fatal to the Govt, either the Horse Guards or the Corn Laws.’ (Mitchell Lord Melbourne p 192).

Wellington on the State of the Army, 1838-39:

On 11 December 1838 Wellington wrote the Willoughby Gordon, the Quartermaster-General:

As for my part, I have always been of opinion that nothing would enable us to settle our affairs in a short space of time, or at all (because if we don’t settle them in a short space of time we shall not settle them at all), excepting to convince the World that we were in earnest in our Intentions to settle them by making a real efficient augmentation of both Army and Navy, so as to meet all difficulties and opposition as a great Nation ought. Instead of dribbling as we are, we ought to augment all the depots in this Country and in Ireland to 500 Men each. This augmentation would give you an early Command of some Thousands. It would cost but little more than the Pay of the Men, and would be a real efficient Measure. It would be followed by no expense thereafter. It would convince friends and Enemies that we intend to be Master in Canada. I for one do not now believe that that is the Intention of all in the Cabinet. There ought to be corresponding and permanent augmentation of the Navy, which I am positively certain is not adequate in Strength to the Wants for its Service. …

We should really look seriously at our Position and take Steps to make our Enemies feel that we are determined to maintain it. In this Denomination I am sorry to say that I consider the whole World. With the exception possibly of some in the Austrian Government, we have not a Friend left in the World. I ought to add to this Letter that there should be a corresponding augmentation of the dismounted Men of the Cavalry. (Quoted in Herbert Maxwell Life of Wellington vol 2 p 357-8).

And again, on 27 December

The state of our military force is very distressing. The Government will not – they dare not – look our difficulties in the face, and provide for them. I don’t believe that any Government that could be formed in these days would have the power. (Wellington to Gordon, 27 December 1838, in Herbert Maxwell Life of Wellington vol 2 p 358).

While in July 1839 Greville records a conversation with him along the same lines:

I met the Duke yesterday at dinner and had much talk with him. He is very desponding about the state of the country and the condition in which the Government have placed it; complains of its defenceless situation from their carrying on a war (Canada) with a peace establishment; consequently that the few Troops we have are harassed to death with duty, and in case of a serious outbreak that there is no disposable force to quell it; that the Government are ruled by factions, political and religious. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 22 July 1839 vol 4 p 190).





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