Lieutenant-Colonel C. R. D. Gray

Skinner’s Horse


The Ultimate Cavalryman

Also by Allan Mallinson







*Published outside the UK under the title HONORABLE COMPANY


The cuts in the British infantry announced last year will change the face of soldiering for ever. Regiments whose names the Duke of Wellington would have seen each day in the ‘morning states’ during the long years of the Peninsular War and Waterloo will disappear – the Royal Scots, Green Howards, Cheshires, Royal Welch Fusiliers, Black Watch, to name but a few. No longer will a man – commissioned or enlisted – join a tight-knit band of six hundred brothers, his county regiment, and stay with them throughout his service as they move as a body from post to post. Instead an infantryman will go from one battalion to another within a large ‘regional’ unit – what is known as ‘trickle posting’. It is, of course, a judgement as to what effect these cuts will have – how continuing commitments and new contingencies will be met by fewer battalions – and what effect the enormous change in regimental organization will have on recruiting, retention and cohesion, the three areas in which the county regiments have been so strong. However, from the long perspective of military history – which is the perspective of my tales – it appears there is but one unvarying lesson of war: there is never enough infantry. Vide Iraq.

This, I believe, is the first lesson of war because the man himself is the first weapon of war – all too easily forgotten in an age of beguiling and expensive technology. The man and the regiment are inextricably linked: trust and cohesion in battle come from soldiers living and training together, long term, and acquiring a sense that they are part of something bigger than just the collection of individuals who answer the roll call on a particular day. It was never planned thus. Ironically, the regimental system, which the historian Sir John Keegan has called ‘an accidental act of genius’, grew out of the eighteenth century’s penny-pinching arrangements for raising more troops.

In the period of which I write, the danger in not keeping infantrymen together in the battalions in which they train is well illustrated by a letter from one of the Duke of Wellington’s generals after the Battle of Talavera (where, in An Act of Courage, we shall find Matthew Hervey in the thick of things once more). Complaining of the poor performance of a ‘detachment battalion’, one in which the men were cobbled together from half a dozen different regiments, the general observes, ‘They have no esprit de corps for their interior economy among them, though they will fight. They are careless of all else, and the officers do not look to their temporary field-officers and superiors under whom they are placed, as in an established regiment. I see much of their indiscipline.’

So the new ‘mobility’ of infantrymen, as they change from one battalion to another, was not unknown in Wellington’s day. In Wellington’s army, too, the officers – both infantry and cavalry – would often move from one regiment to another as vacancies occurred, since that was what promotion by purchase required. The duke himself served in half a dozen regiments on his way to becoming lieutenant-colonel of the 33rd Foot, which was renamed The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in his honour (and which is now also to be disbanded).

However, an examination of the annual Army Lists during the years of the Peninsular War (1808–1814), which record the name and seniority of every officer, shows a high degree of stability. Fortunately for the cohesion of the fighting battalions, officers seemed happy enough to stay with their regiments, accepting that promotion would be slow or might not come at all. Perhaps this was because many officers had little real appetite for promotion: there was, after all, no great financial advantage to it (indeed, it usually required capital outlay). Perhaps they did not see the army as a ‘career’, and therefore did not have a strong commitment to the profession of arms, content instead to be in agreeable, gentlemanlike company, doing their bit to defeat Bonaparte until their share of the family fortune permitted them to retire to an equally agreeable sporting life as a country gentleman. As a rule they brought neither great intellect nor address to the regiment. But they did bring absolute physical courage. As many an old soldier would say later, ‘The NCOs showed us how to fight, and the officers how to die.’

There were, of course, exceptions to the ‘brave amateur’ rule. There were aristocrats who regarded generalship as a natural extension of their rank in life, and who applied themselves to it as diligently and effectively as they would to any undertaking touching on their fortune and honour. The Duke of Wellington is the pre-eminent exemplar. There were others of humbler birth driven – as today – by some intense professional instinct or hunger for promotion. Without money or influence, theirs was a precarious and frequently disappointing quest, especially during the long period of retrenchment after the Napoleonic Wars. Matthew Hervey is one such man, and in this latest volume we see him struggling with his ghosts and the desire for advancement – and also with the consequences of being an ambitious, capable, but relatively junior officer in a rapidly atrophying organization.

One may speculate on what might have become of Hervey, and others like him, had not Bonaparte occasioned the expansion of His Majesty’s land forces and the Royal Navy in the first place. The young Master Hervey was in the classical remove at Shrewsbury when His Majesty’s government saw the opportunity to carry the war to the French on the Continent instead of just at sea and in the colonies. He would otherwise perhaps have followed his brother to Oxford (where their father had been), and taken Holy Orders as they had. Would he have enjoyed making sermons? Who knows: one of Hervey’s contemporaries in the Peninsula, Ensign George Gleig, who left Oxford to join the 85th (Buckinghamshire Volunteers), was afterwards ordained and some years later became chaplain-general. But, to begin with at least, Hervey, like Gleig, was one of those of whom Dr Johnson wrote: ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for never having been to sea nor having been a soldier.’

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