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RLMH News - Our Only Soldier: The Life and Legacy of Field-Marshal Viscount Wolseley on the Centenary of his Death
2013 is the centenary of the death of Field-Marshal Viscount Garnet Joseph Wolseley (1833-1913). He was a good friend to RUSI and a decorated war hero. To mark the centenary, the RUSI Library of Military History has also put together a small display of some of our Wolseley material.
By Ashley Ryan, Volunteer, RUSI Library of Military History
Born in Dublin, he was the eldest son of an army major, who died when Wolseley was seven years old. This was a time of great hardship in Ireland and he left school aged just fourteen to help earn money for his family, finding a job in a surveyor’s office. The family lacked the means to provide him with either a paid commission in the army or a place at Sandhurst. Over the next three years, he spent his evenings studying subjects from field fortification to algebra, in order to meet the basic educational requirements for a commission. It was only upon several more letters and a plea from his mother that, in 1852, at the age of eighteen, Wolseley was gazetted an ensign in the 12th Foot.
During his first military action, Wolseley led what was considered to be a suicidal charge on Myat Toon’s stockade at Kyault Azein in Burma. He was wounded during the attack by a gingal ball, which tore through his left thigh, severing a vein. Wolseley, shouting on his men, stemmed the flow of blood the best he could and refused medical aid until the flag had been hoisted above the newly-taken position. Ensign Wolseley earned himself the honour of a mention in dispatches and promotion to lieutenant. As soon as he was fit for service he requested another posting.
In 1854 Wolseley was gazetted a captain, but his advancement was promptly rescinded by the establishment; aged just twenty one, he was considered too young for the rank. Infuriated by the cancellation of the promotion he had justly earned by his conduct and courage, he threatened to resign his post; his captaincy was thus returned to him. This trend of early (yet deserved) promotion continued; by the age of twenty five, Wolseley had become the youngest lieutenant colonel in the British army.
By August 1855 Wolseley was fighting in the Crimea, at Sevastopol, where he requested duty with the Royal Engineers. He was completing work with a small team in the trenches when a shell burst in a nearby gravel-filled gabion, killing the two sappers alongside him. The force of the explosion embedded stones into every inch of Wolseley’s face, virtually tearing away his cheek ... his injuries were extensive, and the occasion saw the loss of one eye and half his left shinbone. He was picked up and, due to his bloodied appearance and with his eyes closed, assumed to be dead; but then startled surgeons as he mumbled that he was ‘worth a dozen dead men yet.’
Contributing to Army Thinking
By 1861, he had seen service in Burma, the Crimea, India, and China. He wrote the Soldier’s Pocket-book for Field Service (first published 1869); this fascinating book was the forerunner of the British Army’s field service regulations. In it, Wolseley expounds upon such varied topics as how to get the best out of one’s men, destruction of railroads, knot tying, fitting a ship for horses, attack and defence of positions, and the best method for reviving a half-drowned man (advising his readers that if laying him face down to clear his airway doesn’t work, one should ‘excite his nostrils with snuff’). Wolseley elaborates, too, on how officers should conduct themselves, advising that in action they ought to ‘seem ignorant that any danger exists ... come what may, have a smiling face ... [it is] the especial duty of officers to set an example of coolness and steadiness.’
Wolseley believed firmly in this principle of equality. Indeed, after being appointed to the War Office in 1871, he worked hand-in-glove with Viscount Cardwell to abolish purchased commissions and introduce our current, merit-based system of promotion through the ranks. They also worked closely together to shorten enlistment periods, improve training and equipment, abolish the established system of purchased commissions and achieve the creation of an army reserve.
In 1873-74, he commanded the Ashanti campaign, which brought him widespread recognition in England; after his capture of the capital Kumasi, he was awarded the rank of Major-General and knighted.
Wolseley was that rare thing – indubitably a man of action, he was also a voracious reader and scholar of war. Indeed, he once confessed that he would ‘sooner live upon porridge in a book-room than upon venison and truffles where books were not.’ This love of reading literally saved his life during the Crimean; after his death a number of items were donated to RUSI by his widow, including a book on French and English grammar signed by him, which had been damaged by a bullet (written inside was the text: ‘This volume was the means of saving the life of Lieutenant Garnet Wolseley in the Crimean War in 1855’).
In 1882, after rapidly seizing the Suez Canal, Sir Wolseley led a night march to defeat Arabi Pasha (the leader of an Egyptian army uprising). The campaign was so quick and total that Wolseley was able to take Arabi’s visiting card from his tent, which he kept as a souvenir. The complete defeat of Arabi, and consequently the suppression of the revolt, has been termed his most brilliant campaign and earned him elevation to the peerage as Baron Wolseley. It was also a moment of great military prescience, since before leaving England he ‘placed his finger on a map of Egypt at a point now known to fame as Tel-El-Kebir, and said, “That is where I shall beat Arabi”.’
Seemingly the British Empire’s troubleshooter, Wolseley was next tasked with rescuing his friend Major-General Charles Gordon, who was besieged in the Sudan (1884–85); but the advance relief troops arrived at Khartoum two days after it had been taken, and Gordon killed.
Involvement with RUSI
Wolseley became a life member of RUSI in 1869. He was often away on campaign and had a number of commitments even when at home, but made every effort to be an active member, often taking the chair at RUSI lectures. He also chaired the Fifty-Eighth Anniversary Meeting of RUSI in 1888-89 and, in the proceedings, he said: ‘during the course of my career I have received the greatest possible benefit and assistance from the papers published ... by the Royal United Service Institution.’
Wolseley held firmly to the belief that, in order to advance his career in the army, a man had to do nothing but ‘try to get killed every time he had the chance.’ He always had a great fear of ‘dying in bed, like an old woman,’ and his conduct on the battlefield – and the grievous wounds he sustained – always made this end seem most unlikely. Despite this, however, he passed away in 1913 (at the age of eighty) due to complications arising from a chill.
Field-Marshal Viscount Wolseley was buried with full military honours at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he was laid to rest near the Duke of Wellington.The Union Flag, which covered his coffin on its final journey to London, was later donated to the RUSI Museum by his widow, Dowager Viscountess Wolseley. She also agreed to lend all of Wolseley’s decorations and medals to the Museum, and gave a large number of his personal possessions and books to both the RUSI Museum and Library. These include Wolseley’s Field-Marshal's baton, the Sword presented to him by the City of London in 1882 (conferring the Freedom of the City), and Major-General Charles Gordon's cigarette case (Gordon gave this to Wolseley as he left London for his fateful trip to the Sudan in 1884, and Wolseley kept it for the rest of his life in memory of his friend). Only this month, one of the books donated from Wolseley’s personal collection was rediscovered: Henderson – James Keith Field-Marshal by Andrew Henderson. Published in 1758, it is now stored away for safekeeping in our rare book collection.
Wolseley’s bravery on the battlefield, and cool head during moments of great danger, are uncontested; yet, perhaps his greatest contribution in the service of Great Britain was in the modernisation and professionalization of the army. Wolseley, who had studied military theory and practice from a young age, combined this knowledge with the hard-won, practical lessons and experiences of his life on the battlefield to achieve a deep understanding of the reforms necessary for a contemporary and highly effective British Army. Indeed, Wolseley’s work made a significant contribution towards preparing the army for the conflict yet to come, in 1914.
References and suggested reading
For those of you who find your interest in this remarkable man piqued,. You may also find the following suggested reading useful.
* Those items marked with an asterisk are available in the RUSI Library of Military History.
Forbes, Archibald. (1885). Souvenirs of Some Continents.
Gosse, Edmund. (1922). Aspects and Impressions.
Kochanski, Halik. (1999). Sir Garnet Wolseley Victorian Hero.
Lehmann, Joseph H. (1964). All Sir Garnet – A Life of Field-Marshal Lord Wolseley.*
RUSI Journal (various years: 1869-70 to 1914)*
RUSI Museum Catalogue.*
Wolseley, Colonel Sir Garnet J. (1871). The Soldier’s Pocket-book for Field Service, 2nd ed.
National Army Museum website (www.nam.ac.uk)
Suffolk Regiment website (http://www.suffolkregiment.org)
Further Analysis: History