Frederick Augustus (1763–1827), Duke of York, Reviewing Troops in Flanders
The Napoleonic Wars (and it is fair to call them such from this time, when Bonaparte had become the most powerful figure in the new republic) triggered many forms of social change in Europe, not least nationalism. In Britain, the very real threat of invasion accelerated this trend. The French landed in Ireland in 1798 to back a revolt there (it was eventually crushed with a certain brutal ineptitude). In preparing to meet this challenge in England itself, the government found that a boisterous anti-French patriotism brought people flocking to the colours of volunteer and militia regiments. This rage militaire even turned military encampments into places of fashion and society where the wives of those John Bulls who raised new bands of volunteers also disported themselves in uniform.
While the Duke of York thus tried to take the steps that would produce a regular army capable of fighting on the Continent in the long term, much attention was also given in the late 1790s to giving some sort of military bearing to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers being prepared for home defence. This was an urgent imperative, so whereas many years passed before the Duke appeared in person at the Royal Military College, he took the leading role in inspecting the new bands of citizen soldiers much sooner.
Some 15,000 volunteers were drawn up in Hyde Park for the King’s Birthday Review in June 1799. Their regiments had names like Loyal Hackney and Royal Westminster. The Duke of York rode his charger down their line to ensure everything was in order before George III himself arrived in a carriage at 9 a.m. The guns of the Honourable Artillery Company boomed out a salute as the King’s carriage was driven along the line of regiments that stretched from the Serpentine to Hyde Park Corner. The heady nationalistic atmosphere as he watched them loosing off a volley with their muskets may be gleaned from a report in the Gazette: ‘After the firing, the whole waived their caps in the air and gave three hearty huzzas; which, joined to the sound of military music striking up at the same moment, and the various expressions of joy from the spectators, even the female part of them joining by waving of handkerchiefs, is said to have drawn tears of joy from their gracious sovereign.’
In these events the King and his family performed a service recognisable from the wars of the twentieth century: that of leading national mobilisation. There was a political point in this banging and hallooing by overenthusiastic volunteers, and it was rammed home in the official account, which described the scene as a ‘splendid assemblage of citizen-soldiers, armed in defence of the best of sovereigns and the happiest, most perfect constitution upon earth’. Early jitters about Jacobinism and the future safety of Britain’s royal house had passed.
At the King’s Birthday Review, the Duke of York’s older brother, the Prince of Wales, and two younger ones were also present in military attire. They acted, though, as spectators, unlike the C-in-C who was master of ceremonies. This disparity aroused the worst kind of princely sibling rivalry, which, ultimately, would threaten the Duke of York’s reforms.
George III himself still played an important role in the armed forces, particularly in the promotion of admirals and generals. Frederick, widely regarded as his favourite son, was actually running the army, or at least its administration. He was strengthening the HQ at Horse Guards and its role in promoting regimental officers, making his own office increasingly important as a fount of patronage. The Prince of Wales, meanwhile, held only the rank of colonel. This was little more than a ceremonial bauble and he came to resent the fact that, as heir to the throne, he was of considerably inferior military rank to his younger brother. The Prince seemed to make little allowance for the fact that he was infinitely more interested in sybaritic pleasures than the tedium of the drill square. As for the Duke of Kent, one of York’s younger brothers, he had devoted quite a few years to soldiering, but had proven a poor officer who bridled at tickings off from his superior, the C-in-C. Indeed, over time, Kent’s dislike and envy of his older brother hardened into something quite dark and unpleasant.
These tensions found focus in army matters. They damaged sibling relations and those between the Prince of Wales and the King, who declined point-blank to take seriously his oldest son’s pretensions to promotion. The King’s oldest son resented his father’s refusal to promote him, and as the sovereign became increasingly debilitated by his ‘madness’ their enmity worsened. So, while the Duke of York’s career as C-in-C was generally a great boon to the army, there was a reverse to this particular medal for his growing power complicated the affairs of the royal family. With hindsight, it can be argued that such conflicts were inevitable until British royals, shorn of real authority, assumed a purely symbolic role in national mobilisation (as in the Second World War), but in 1799 there was still much real work for the Duke of York to do.
During the latter part of that year, with the prospect of an expedition to the Netherlands, the Duke sponsored legislation that finally allowed volunteering from reserve forces into the regulars on a substantial scale in return for a cash bounty. The army’s thirst for manpower was immense. Its West Indian campaigns of 1793-6 had cost it 80,000 men dead or rendered unfit by sickness. Attempts to match France’s new conscription laws had failed. Legislation passed in 1796 (the Quota Acts) had been intended to draw men from each county for military service, but Britain simply wasn’t ready for large-scale military service on the French pattern and the new regulations were widely ignored or flouted. By putting forward the 1799 bill, Horse Guards returned to the fray, with the measure allowing more transfers from reserve forces providing a partial solution.
However, since the regular forces still needed huge numbers of volunteers, the C-in-C tried to make service more attractive. One of his first directives stopped the practice of powdering hair. The ritual of scraping the locks back and dusting them (often with flour!) was an irksome routine that had been forced on soldiers for decades as part of some eighteenth-century idea of what constituted a smart appearance. In addition, more practical uniforms were issued, improved barracks built and financial incentives improved, for example by reducing pay stoppages so the men ended up with more in their pockets. Such measures earned the Duke the sobriquet ‘the soldier’s friend’.
The dramatic expansion of the army in order to meet the threat of foreign invasion offered several vital possibilities for the reformers: it allowed incompetent senior officers to be shunted off to the task of home defence; it brought a new generation of men into the more junior commissioned ranks (most paid nothing for their commissions, thus representing a wider band of society, and many volunteers transferred into the regular army, where they formed a bloc striving for advancement); lastly, it created a large pool of trained manpower that allowed Britain to introduce a limited form of conscription — by drafting men from the reserves into regular regiments — that was to prove vital in sustaining an army large enough to fight Napoleon.
On 23 August 1804, the Commander-in-Chief appeared for yet another review, this time atop the cliffs near Hythe in Kent. There were a few superficial similarities with the event in Hyde Park of five years before: many of the 4,000 troops in front of him wore red coats and the Duke was on horseback again, attired in his formal regimentals. But much more was different.
After the initial inspection of troops and the firing of salutes, the brigade arrayed in front of the Duke came to life. They marched in slow time and then with the hurried pace prescribed for the new light infantry. They formed column and line, and all the time the redcoated regiments were protected by a screen of green jackets, riflemen of the 95th. Then the troops were guided through a mock battle, with the sharpshooters seeking concealed positions in hedges, the artillery firing numerous blanks and the infantry of the line showing how they could deliver a devastating volley. ‘The whole of the review was conducted with the greatest order, no mistake occurred,’ as one account trumpeted it.
The Duke had spent that August morning watching Major General John Moore’s brigade being put through its paces, with that zealous officer proudly at its head. This force was undoubtedly the elite of the army in 1804, although one or two other regiments might have disputed that honour. They had undergone a summer of training in a new system of tactics and discipline at Shorncliffe Camp. Moore’s machine had been refined and practised until it functioned very smoothly indeed. Following the brief peace of 1801-3, this new brigade stood guard at one of the likeliest landing points for any French army. Napoleon had anointed himself Emperor and gathered a huge, well-trained invasion army across the Channel at the so-called Camp of Boulogne. Landing boats were being collected in the French harbours, just as they would be in 1940. Britain’s leaders faced the real possibility that the French enemy would overwhelm them.
Moore could justly take the credit for bringing his regiments to this pitch of preparation, but so much else was due to years of patient reform by the Duke. It was York who had ordered regular field training back in 1795. The creation of new light corps — both infantry regiments and the 95th Rifles — was another innovation nurtured by the C-in-C, for he had realised that these fast-moving, hard-hitting formations would form the vanguard of future Continental expeditions. The system of defence for southern England, complete with Martello towers and Moore’s brigade, was another plan that had been overseen by the C-in-C. And, slowly but surely, the quality of both officers and men reaching frontline regiments like Moore’s had been improved. The spectacle of Moore’s brigade in full flow, then, was a powerful and tangible sign of how the Duke’s reforms were bearing fruit. There were some less visible ones, too.
When Britain sent an expedition to Egypt in 1800, three officers from the first class of Royal Military College graduates had comprised part of its headquarters. This tiny but vital reinforcement had greatly helped in the organisation of the army. Improvements in the equipment and training of the soldiers had also been evident when the redcoats defeated the French at the Battle of the Pyramids in 1801. This British Army campaign in Egypt marked, in the view of Baron Jomini, one of Europe’s leading military thinkers, ‘the era of its regeneration’.
Years of military build-up had, by late 1804, created a vast force for the protection of Britain and its empire. When the wars had begun, a dozen years before, the army had about 50,000 troops. By the time of the Shorncliffe Camp, it was ten times that. Much of this vast figure was made up of volunteer civilians, enthusiastic amateurs of questionable military value, but armed and trained nevertheless. There were also the army’s formal reserves — militia and yeomanry — financed by wily Parliamentarians on the condition that the troops were kept for home defence and thus unavailable for overseas expeditions. Of the full-time army, about 100,000 soldiers were needed to defend various imperial outposts, from Canada to India. This left Britain’s political leaders with the ability to deploy an expeditionary army in Europe of anything up to 50,000 well-trained regular troops.
Between 1804 and 1809 there was much debate about how best to play this card in the game to defeat Napoleon. The aim was to find somewhere it might have great effect while at the same time being retained under British command, for it was still small compared to the forces of Continental powers like Russia and Austria. It took years for this conundrum to resolve itself; indeed William Pitt, the leading advocate of an energetic campaign against the French, died before it did. The key point, though, is that the decade of army reforms of the late 1790s and early 1800s secured the country from invasion and gave several prime ministers the option of becoming serious players in the business of Continental warfare.
During this decade, the Duke of York provided constant supervision and guidance. It must be remembered that at this time many a gentleman in trade or even on the army staff considered a working day of four or five hours (often just in the morning) to be an arduous office existence. The C-in-C’s routine at Horse Guards began at 9 a.m. and rarely ended before 6 p.m. It was normal for him to respond to 300 letters in a day. Managing the business of officer careers proved to be a huge part of this workload and he set aside Tuesdays and Fridays (while Parliament was sitting) for interviews with men who felt they had been unfairly treated or merited promotion. He had taken steps to increase the role of commanding officers in assessing who should get a step up in rank and who should not. At the same time, he accepted that some commanding officer’s vendetta or favouritism might prevent a deserving man from rising even under the improved system, so he made himself a one-man court of final appeal, encouraging those who felt hard done by to approach him at royal levees or even as he strode down Whitehall. The Duke’s larger-than-life persona during this time of bustle and activity was later described by William Makepeace Thackeray as: ‘Big, burly, loud, jolly, cursing, courageous; he had a most affectionate and lovable disposition, was noble and generous to a fault, and was never known to break a promise.’
It should come as no surprise that a man of such enormous energy also had outsize appetites. He consumed fine food and wine voraciously, requiring successive alterations to his uniform. The Duke spent virtually without limit, getting through his substantial income and frequently requiring credit. As for his sexual activities, Gillray had been on to something when he had caricatured the Duke a decade earlier. At the time of the Shorncliffe review, he had become besotted with a woman who would in time become a grave danger to him. Mary Anne Clarke had married a stonemason, taking his name, before moving on to live with a stockbroker and then an army agent. Some accounts described her as an actress, although it is fairer to say that she was a bright, attractive woman who perfected the knack of seducing men and living off them. One otherwise sober life of the Duke of York, published in 1827, noted rather bitterly, ‘This prostitute had sufficient charms to attract the notice of a prince.’
For Frederick, stuck in the proverbially loveless royal marriage (to a Prussian princess), Mary Anne proved an excellent match: she was great fun and an exciting lover. So mesmerised was he by her that the Duke installed her in a beautiful house in Gloucester Place and gave her £1,000 a year. For some time, he maintained a routine of spending weekdays at his town house in Piccadilly and going to his country estate near Weybridge, where his wife lived, at weekends. However, such was the Duke’s thirst for Mrs Clarke’s company that he rented her a country house too, conveniently located near his rural abode. History does not record the excuses he gave his wife when popping off for his weekend amusement.
Mrs Clarke was also a person of gargantuan tastes — for dresses, shoes, furnishings and all other emblems of fashion. In time, she ran up huge debts with tradesmen, using the Duke’s name to secure her credit. Their affair lasted something like three years before he ended it and agreed a deal whereby she would keep quiet about their relationship in return for £400 a year. Evidently, though, this was hardly enough to keep Mrs Clarke in the style to which she had become accustomed.
The House of Commons was in a state of nervous excitement on the morning of 27 January 1809. Reports were flying about London of the battle waged twelve days earlier at Corunna in Spain. General Sir John Moore had fought a gallant rear-guard action against the French but had been mortally wounded on the field. Britain had at last found an arena where its army could make a difference, the Iberian peninsula, where Portugal and Spain were trying to fight off French domination. In the Members’ lobby and corridors of the House there was discussion among Moore’s partisans and his foes. Had the Ministry dispatched 33,000 troops to Spain with little prospect of success against the invading French, so dooming a brave general? Or was Moore himself guilty of bungling a chance to give Napoleon a poke in the eye?
Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley, always an acute judge of the political temperature, had weighed whether the latest expedition, ending in the Royal Navy’s rescue of Moore’s army, would rebound to the credit or debit of the government of the day. He concluded that Napoleon had obliged them, for, he wrote, ‘I am convinced they could not have come off with honour if the French had not attacked.’ Corunna could thus be added to a list of recent battles in which the rebuilt British Army had made a very respectable showing of itself.
Wellesley’s presence at Westminster that day was due to the vote of thanks he was due to receive from the Commons. Members wanted to record their gratitude for the victory won by the future Duke of Wellington several months earlier in Portugal. Wellesley’s triumph had been of a less equivocal nature than Moore’s: he had defeated a French army at the Battle of Vimiero and forced them to surrender Portugal. Having tasted this success, the government was determined to maintain a bridgehead in the peninsula. But if Wellesley thought that morning’s business was all going to be plain sailing, a lap of honour for the conquering hero, he would be sorely disappointed.
The excitement stemmed less from Vimiero, which was already several months in the past, or from the contrary opinions about Moore’s ultimate sacrifice, but from the mischief that Colonel Gwylym Lloyd Wardle, MP, was about to make. He had put down a motion one week earlier, so Members had been aware for several days that he was about to launch a spectacular blow against the administration. He was a Radical, part of a loose faction in the Commons that denounced the government and its war policy, and had gained a certain popularity among Britain’s downtrodden citizens by attacking corruption, humbug and improper influence-peddling wherever they claimed to find it.
Wardle stood to speak, knowing the advance rumour had guaranteed the House would hang on his every word. He called for an urgent inquiry into the conduct of the Duke of York as Commander-in-Chief. As he spelled out his charges, and it became clear that the Duke’s various enemies had coalesced against him, it must have been the stuff of York’s nightmares.
Wardle owed his military rank to having recruited a certain number of men, a system since scrapped. His further progress had been checked by the army reforms. Now he stood ready to produce witnesses who would claim that their advancement had been blocked for the wrong reasons. But Wardle’s star turn was to be Mary Anne Clarke, who would tell the spellbound Members that she had run a promotion racket whereby aspiring officers paid her to bring their names to the Duke of York’s attention. In time, a further component of this conspiracy would emerge — clear evidence that Wardle, Clarke and the others had been incited and perhaps bankrolled by none other than the Duke of Kent, who resented his removal from the command of Gibraltar’s garrison in 1803.
Some elements of this politically explosive cocktail had been apparent for some months. When the Duke of York had angled (with no chance of success) for a command in Spain in 1808, for example, a caricature was published showing a ‘Female Junto’ of stylishly dressed ladies pleading with him not to go, saying their concern was for his sake, ‘not for our pensions’. This apparent reference to a string of paid-off mistresses had been sufficiently elliptical to amuse only those in the know. However, a pamphlet, also published in 1808, had drawn together some riotous misbehaviour by cadets at the Royal Military College with the circumstances surrounding the Duke of Kent being dismissed from Gibraltar into a clear ad hominem attack on the C-in-C.
Once charges that the King’s son had kept Mrs Clarke in such lavish style and had been blatantly corrupt were made on the floor of the Commons, they inevitably caused uproar. The Secretary at War leapt up and promised an immediate inquiry, in which the whole House of Commons would sit in judgement; he insisted that the C-in-C would be found innocent. Lieutenant General Wellesley was next on his feet, immediately hazarding his Vimiero laurels in support of the Duke’s good name. This defence gave Wellesley’s direct recognition that fourteen years of patient reform by York had turned the army into something capable of facing the French ‘masters’ of war. But that, of course, was no answer in itself to the charges of influence-peddling.
During the weeks that followed Wardle’s first speech, the Commons heard testimony from a variety of witnesses. As anticipated, Mrs Clarke was indeed the most sensational, providing juicy morsels about the Duke’s private life as well as claims that she used her feminine wiles to get men promoted. Newspapers reported each twist and turn, every coffee house was abuzz with it, and the mob was in a state of febrile excitement, cheering Colonel Wardle whenever he appeared in public.
As the weeks wore on, though, there was a certain relief among ministers, because none of the witnesses (who gave their testimonies without taking any oath) was able to deliver a knockout punch. When it finally came to a division on Wardle’s motion, on 16 March 1809, the charge that the C-in-C had behaved corruptly was defeated by a substantial margin (364 votes against Wardle; 123 for him). Most of the army officers — by this time they had reached an all-time peak of seventy-nine MPs — who were there agreed with Lieutenant General Wellesley’s view rather than Colonel Wardle’s.
This affair was the first modern British scandal in more ways than one. The Ministry was concerned that so many MPs had voted with Wardle. Although the evidence against the Duke never amounted to much — for there was no proof that anyone had gained anything by improper means — he was damaged by it. The appearance of wrongdoing scuppered him. A typically modern phenomenon, the curious consensus among backbenchers, press and mob, ultimately proved more important than the facts of the case. So, a couple of days later, the Duke of York stood down as Commander-in-Chief. Lieutenant General Wellesley, who, by this point, was about to set sail for Portugal with a new expedition, thought the Duke’s treatment completely undeserved. This view was shared among many junior officers, emerging in their letters and journals.
Just a few months after the Duke’s resignation those who had brought it about fell out with one another. Mary Anne Clarke, having failed to receive the money promised by Wardle (on behalf, she said, of the Duke of Kent), retracted her evidence, turning on her co-conspirators. She published her own account of the scandal in which she stated, ‘My acquiantance with Colonel Wardle, and his associates, has convinced me that the garb of patriotic ardour conceals the most destructive passions and principles that can have no end but in self-advancement, power and honours [original emphasis].’ Having emerged as the author of so much humbug, Wardle eventually left England. Two years after stepping down, a vindicated Duke of York was restored to his post of Commander-in-Chief, which he held for sixteen more years.
Although his latter period at Horse Guards also saw valuable reform, much of it directed at improving the ordinary soldier’s lot, few remember the Duke for much more than the nursery rhyme. There are one or two other legacies, too. A handsome statue of him looks out across the Mall to Horse Guards. Less obviously, the number of ‘Duke of York’ pubs is a mark of soldierly affection for him, dating back to an era when retired redcoats often became publicans. It is interesting to note, by this crude standard of military respect, that there are more Duke of York pubs than there are boozers named after Wellington.
Certainly, the British Army before him was not rubbish. Also, it can be proven that the many reforms and directives spewed out by Horse Guards from 1795 to 1809 were the work of a team. But all of the Duke’s staff would have been powerless without the patronage of an engaged leader who brought to the bureaucratic battle the hitting power of being ‘Field Marshal’ and ‘HRH’.
The class envy and latent republicanism of many Britons fed the scandal that brought him down in 1809 and later starved him of the historical reputation he deserved. Plenty of people still have trouble conceding that any member of royalty can achieve anything of substance, but the Duke was an indispensable figure at a pivotal time in history. For at the same moment that it became unacceptable for him, as a royal prince, to command an army in the field, it required a man of this pedigree to overhaul the institution of the British Army. There would be many subsequent moments, such as after the Crimean War, when the army would have benefited enormously from a similarly committed royal patron but lacked one.
One of the best eulogies to the Duke’s reforms was made in the House of Commons in January 1809 by Arthur Wellesley, just as the Clarke scandal broke:
I can say from my own knowledge, as having been a lieutenant colonel in the army when HRH was appointed to command it, that it is materially improved in every respect; that the discipline of the soldiers is improved; that under the establishments formed under the direction of HRH, the officers are improved in knowledge; that the staff of the army is much better than it was; and much more complete than it was; that the cavalry is improved . . . and everything that relates to the military discipline of the soldiers and the military efficiency of the army has been greatly improved since HRH was appointed Commander-in-Chief.
As for the Duke of York’s success in mastering the arcane ways of Whitehall in order to overwhelm politicians and get what he wanted for the army, the best estimate came from Lord Palmerston. ‘A strong man; son of one king and brother of another,’ the minister who had dealt with York on many matters said, ‘heir presumptive, a political leader . . . he was always at the head of the army (except during a short interval) and took advantage of every opportunity to push on his encroachments.’
The situation on the eve of the Peninsular wars was well described by William Napier, an army officer who would fight in that conflict and write the first great history of it. Public opinion knew little of the Duke of York’s great work to redress the organisation’s failings which had been exposed in the Low Countries during the 1790s. Ironically, the prince found himself considered to be part of the problem rather than its solution. As Napier wrote:
England, both at home and abroad, was in 1808, scorned as a military power . . . An ignorant contempt for the British soldiery had been long entertained, before the ill success of the expeditions in 1794 and 1799 appeared to justify the general prejudice, and the excellent discipline afterwards introduced and perfected by the Duke of York was despised.
These words succinctly sum up attitudes that were expressed in countless coffee houses, parliamentary debates or cruel caricatures during the early 1800s. Yet, as York resigned his office, public perception lagged behind reality: the organisation stood on the threshold of legendary victories.
There are many reasons why the Duke deserves a reputation as the greatest reformer in the history of the British Army. His success was to have an effect on everything from the survival of the British political system in the face of the French threat to the shaping of Europe after it had passed. He forged a shield to defend Britain against invasion, and then a sword that would be used to strike back at Napoleon. Ultimately, though, it was not the Duke of York but Wellington who would have the opportunity to plunge that weapon into the enemy.