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Memoirs of British Generals Distinguished During The Peninsular War
By John William Cole in 2 volumes (1856)


The leading object of the work now presented to the Public has been to bring together, in a connected series, and within reasonable compass, an account of the military services of many eminent men who fought in the same wars, under the same leaders, and ufith the same object. We were then opposed to France—we are now her close ally; and the new-born friendship is as likely to be enduring, as it will assuredly prove advantageous to humanity, civilisation, and the general advancement of the world. But history cannot be falsified, neither is it necessary to forget or gloss over truth, because the shifting tide of events has changed the current of national feeling. We rejoice in the unexpected alteration, and pray that it may be permanent. Let us trust we are true prophets when we apply a line from Shakspeare, and say, “ Our children’s children shall see this, and bless Ileaven ! ”

During’ the last general war, the English arms achieved great successes, and we value doubly the friendship of the gallant enemy, who fought us fairly and openly on all occasions, gave us such an infinity of trouble, and established a mutual esteem on so many desperately contested fields.

Four of the individuals included in the present selection have already furnished subject-matter for long and mteresting volumes. The events in which they, and the companions now associated with them, participated as important agents, have been so often described, that much novelty is not to be expected in incident, however it may be admissible n inference. The historian or biographer, like the navigator, must be guided by safe beacons previously laid down for him, or he will run his vessel aground. He cannot, for the sake of effect, soar rnto the realms of invention, or give the rein to the dominion of fancy. If he does so unadvisedly, he will incur the danger of being ranked as a fabulist with Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville, and the Baron de Tott. To write clearly and truthfully, he must seek out the best authorities that have preceded him, weigh the value of their evidence, select the authentic and cast aside the doubtful ; and must, in some sort, consent to be considered a compiler rather than an original composer. In a poem, a romance, or a tale of imagination, we may invent—a history we cannot choose but follow. This qualified classification may not accord with the high aspirings of “vaulting ambition,” but it should satisfy a moderate mind, as it is better than being told, as Sheridan once sarcastically said to another honourable member, that “you are indebted to your memory for your jests, and to your imagination for your facts.”

Many differences of opinion will probably be expressed as to the judgment displayed in the present selection. Some readers may say, why is this General preferred, and that General omitted? The answer is, that it was necessary to make a limit, and that the Work is offered, not as comprising the whole, but as merely a small cohort from the distinguished band. It will be easy to add to the list if more should be required.

Fourteen generals of repute are included n this list. One only of the number was what may be termed old — Sir Thomas Graham — and he was only sixty when he fought and won, with marvellous promptitude and audacity, the Battle of Barrosa. The rest were in the prime vigour of their days, with strength and activity of body which seconded the energy of the mind. Without this happy combination of mental and physical attributes, the duties of a general in the field will hang heavily on him who has to perform them.

Some of our late commanders in the Crimea have been mercilessly twitted with the sins of age and accompanying inactivity; but the charges are more easily made than proved. It is no fault of theirs, nor was it by their own desire, that a long peace has hung them up to rust for forty years, when many of them vol I. a would much rather have been oiled and sharpened by constant employment. But events have shown, that on the day of battle the seniors have shaken off the weight of time, and have sprung into their saddles as if they had tasted the elixir of renovating youth.

The writer of this Work entered the army at a very early age, with good prospects, a regular military education acquired at the College at Marlow, and a strong desire to get on—but he had no money. In consequence of this deficiency he was repeatedly purchased over, and this was a leading reason, amongst others, why he turned his thoughts into a different channel. Yet he feels bound in justice to admit, that the juniors who, bv the regulations of the service and the accidents of fortune, thus stepped over his head, were, with scarcely an exception, fully capable of the position into which they had bought themselves, and zealous in the discharge of their duties. Had it been otherwise, such commanding officers as he served under would have used no ceremony in getting rid of a drone or a blockhead, even though he should have been a scion of nobility or the possessor of thousands.

Much has been lately said and written upon the question of promotion from the ranks, and the propriety of enlarging the narrow principle, upon which that mode of rewarding valour and respectability has hitherto been exercised. This subject requires to be considered with tact and delicacy. The encouragement held out to deserving merit in the inferior grades should be increased rather than restricted, and there are many ways by which this may he carried into effect. But the British army is differently constituted from that of any other European power. The enlistment is voluntary, and the soldier knows that his officer is taken from a superior class to himself. He entertains no jealousy on that account. His own ideas, even in his humble sphere, are innately aristocratic, and he likes to be commanded by a gentleman. In this feeling he looks up with as much personal respect to the youngest ensign as to the oldest major ; and herein lies the main secret of the rigid and submissive discipline in which the regimental officers of the English army hold their men, and which has no parallel in any other service.

The French marshals born of the revolution, who rose from the ranks with scarcely an exception, were reputed to be giants in their profession ; and the fact that they began as pm ate soldiers was often quoted as the reason. But when many of them were fairly pitted against our own commanders in the Peninsula, they could show no title to take precedence of them in the field, while they were little calculated to compete with them in the drawing-room.

On running over the names of the British generals included in this publication, a majority will be found to have been connected with the high nobility of the land, and to have risen rapidly beyond the subordinate stations, by purchase or faully interest; and yet it cannot be denied that they vindicated rather than condemned the system now so loudly denounced, and invariably proved themselves stout soldiers, sagacious leaders, and accomplished gentlemen.

A biographical or historical work, to he deemed trustworthy, must (as has been already remarked) be based upon known and admitted authority ; unless where, the writer speaks as an eye-witness of events now for the first time, recorded, or relates transactions 'n which he took a personal share. With a view to accuracy, and an anxious desire not to perpetuate erroneous statements, in what is now offered, a careful examination and comparison has been made of every antecedent publication of note which fell within reach, whence facts could be elicited bearing either upon the persons or events undertaken to be described. It has been very difficult to avoid repetition, and perhaps occasional tediousness, on a subject restrained within a contracted circle, and tending to monotony from a recurrence of the same scenes, although the parts assigned to the actors are varied and distinct. All introduced extracts and references are duly acknowledged.

In the Memoir of Sir Lowry Cole, much aid has been derived from the “Marches and Movements of the Fourth Division,” privately compiled by their Deputy Quarter-master-General, the late Major-General Sir Charles Broke Vere, K.C.B., and most obligingly communicated by his surviving brother, Major-General Iloratio Broke, through the medium of the author’s old friend and brother-officer, Colonel Angelo.

For nearly the whole of the materials supplying the biography of Major-General Le Marchant, the author is entirely indebted to the kindness of the present Sir Denis le Marchant, Bart., to whom he begs to offer his grateful acknowledgments for the use of a privately-printed life of his father, intended only for distribution amongst his own immediate circle of friends, but which, in the most obliging manner, he has permitted him to make the groundwork of his own memoir. The perusal has left a strong impression of regret, that Sir Denis has not thought proper to publish the volume as he wrote it, for both in the interest of the matter and the elegance of the style, it leaves at a great distance any effort to which the writer of the present Work can presume to aspire. If any additional information is now conveyed in an acceptable form, or familiar subjects invested with fresh attraction, the purpose of the author to uphold the reputation of the British army will be fully accomplished, and his utmost wishes more than realised.

London, December 15. 1855.

Volume 1  |  Volume 2

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