Wolseley and the Ring

When U.S. Grant was appointed General in Chief of the Union Armies in March 1864, he was assuming overall responsibility for the direction of some 533,000 men. Exactly seven years later, Helmuth von Moltke was directing the efforts of approximately 850,000 men in the closing stages of the Franco-Prussian War. (1) By comparison, between October 1899 and January 1900, Britain dispatched only 112,000 regulars to the Cape and, even adding together all those forces eventually deployed in South Africa, would still yield a total of only 450,000 men. Yet, of course, this effort was herculean when set beside the usual pattern of Victorian campaigning and, in fact, the largest number of men put into the field between the Crimean and South African wars was the 35,000 or so in what might be termed the Egyptian theatre in 1882. Even then, the actual field force directed by the commanding general against Arabi's forces was only some 16,000 strong. (2)

There were those within the Victorian army who have been described as continentalists to whom, to quote Colonel Lonsdale Hale, such colonial expeditions were 'the play of children'. Equally, those characterised as of the imperial school of military theory had a point when, as T.M. Maguire expressed it in 1896, 'while looking at the stars we may tumble in a ditch, and while lost to wonder at how to move effectively from Strasbourg, Mayence and Metz towards Paris with many divisions of cavalry and armies consisting each of from three to eight corps, we may forget how to handle a few battalions in the passes of the Suleiman Range or in the deserts of Upper Egypt. (3) In other words, when discussing methods of command and attitudes towards staff work in the Victorian army, it is always necessary to bear in mind the reality of the limited scale of the professional demands actually being made upon commanders and their staffs.

The commanding general in Egypt in 1882 and, moreover, the symbolic head of the imperial school itself was, of course, Garnet Wolseley. First coming to prominence through his command of the Red River expedition in Canada in 1870, his military reputation as 'our only general' was then consolidated by his campaigns in Ashanti in 1873 - 74 and Egypt punctuated by proconsular appointments to Natal in 1875 and to Cyprus in 1878 - 79 and by command in South Africa from 1879 - 80 during the closing stages of the Zulu War and the subsequent Sekukuni campaign. There followed, however, the failure to relieve Gordon at Khartoum in 1884 - 85, which proved Wolseley's last active command, although, of course, he was Adjutant-General from 1882 to 1890 and, ultimately, Commander-in-Chief from 1895 to 1900.

It would be all but impossible to mention Wolseley's name or campaigns without instantly also calling to mind that familiar roll call of celebrated soldiers so closely associated with him - Redvers Buller, Evelyn Wood, Henry Brackenbury, William Butler, Frederick Maurice, George Colley, Herbert Stewart and the rest. Be the Wolseley 'gang', the Ashanti 'ring', the 'Mutual Admiration Society' or whatever, Wolseley and his followers aroused strong opinions at the time and, to judge from the contrasting perspectives of modern historians, have even now not lost their ability to create argument. Within the Victorian army, the struggle between Wolseley and his various rivals ranged widely. That waged with the traditionalists grouped around the Duke of Cambridge encompassed such reform issues as short service while that fought out with the 'Indians' increasingly represented by Frederick Roberts - principally concerned the empire's strategic orientation. Perhaps not unexpectedly, neither particular issues nor the positions assumed by individuals with respect to them were necessarily constant and, in any case, it is not the function of this paper to explore what might be termed the politics of the Victorian army. Nevertheless, since the rivalry between different factions invariably centred upon manoeuvring adherents into particular commands, it will be necessary to discuss the implications of Wolseley's selection of staff on campaign in some detail before considering his actual command style.

The selection of staff for the Red River campaign was dictated by those officers available in Canada at the time, the only real exception being the employment of Lieutenant Hugh McCalmont, who made his own way there when his troop was about to be reduced and managed to persuade Wolseley to take him along. (4) Thus, the association of Wolseley with Captain Buller, Lieutenant Butler, Colonel John McNeill VC, and Captain G.L. Huyshe was essentially unplanned, although he was acquainted with Butler and McNeill from their Canadian service. However, Wolseley claimed in his memoirs that he 'had long been in the habit of keeping a list of the best and ablest soldiers I knew, and was always on the look-out for those who could safely be entrusted with any special military piece of work' and all five together with Assistant Controller M.B. Irvine were to be chosen for the Ashanti expedition. In the same vein, at a time when Butler was proving especially quarrelsome, Wolseley wrote in December 1884 that he would 'drop him from my list'. (5)

Ashanti marked the effective beginning of the ring, the initial 36 staff and special service officers sailing with Wolseley in September 1873 also including Lieutenant Colonel Wood, Major Baker Russell, Major T.D. Baker, Captain Brackenbury, Captain Robert Home, Lieutenant Lord Gifford and Lieutenant Maurice. When McNeill was wounded, he was replaced by Colonel George Greaves, who arrived in December, as did Major Colley. The Red River contingent had proved their worth to Wolseley's satisfaction and others were also known to him personally, Greaves having shared the same room in the War Office and Wood having fortuitously met Wolseley while he was planning the expedition and joked of how his naval knowledge would be of utility on the rivers or West Africa. Most were young and many were clearly courageous. McNeill, Wood and the surgeon, Dr Anthony Home, who also accompanied Wolseley to Cyprus, had won the Victoria Cross and Buller and Gifford were to win it subsequently. Similarly, Wolseley was to comment during the campaign, 'All these officers I have with me being selected men seem to think it necessary never to give in. There is such a medium in all things, and obstinacy in confessing to be ill in such a climate as this is may lead to serious consequences'. Indeed, by November 1873 the sickness rate had already reached 70% among headquarters staff and 45% among special service officers. (6)

Others were chosen on intellectual reputation, Brackenbury, Maurice and Colley being on the teaching staffs of Woolwich, Sandhurst and the Staff College respectively. Colley, of course, had passed out first from Camberley with a record number of marks in only nine months of self-tuition while Maurice had won the 1872 Wellington essay prize competition in which Wolseley was placed fifth. Wolseley had commented at the time that men like Maurice 'must in future be brought to the front' and he was to explain in his memoirs that 1 felt that ordinary men could not be good enough for the work I had undertaken'. Accordingly, Wolseley had not simply chosen those at the top of the War Office register for special service and, indeed, stood accused by the commandant of the Staff College, Sir Edward Hamley, of 'cutting blocks with a razor' by selecting psc's in particular for campaigning in West Africa. (7)

Hamley's charge in itself gives the lie to the claim by one historian that the failure of the Staff College to attract sufficient candidates at this period could be partly attributed to the greater importance of being a member of the right faction within the army than a graduate of Camberley. Moreover, it can be noted that ten of Wolseley's original selections had the psc qualification - four of them serving in the headquarters' staff -and it was Buller's participation in the campaign that prevented him from completing his course at Camberley. A total of 34 psc's including 14 in the headquarters staff and five of seven officers in the intelligence section were to serve in Egypt in 1882 and the Gordon relief expedition initially employed 20 Camberley graduates, six - if one includes Buller - serving in Wolseley's headquarters and seven on the lines of communication staff.8 Wolseley was also to encourage promising officers to attend the Staff College and to work for the appointment of able directing staff.

Wolseley himself was to suggest on occasions that it was only ability that counted in the selection of staff, pointing out in the autumn of 1884, for example, that his headquarters staff in the Sudan would be different men from those employed in Egypt in 1882: This time, as was also the case in 1882,1 have, and then had, a host of new men. My idea is to give every Staff College officer and everyone strongly recommended by a good commanding officer a chance in a subordinate position of showing what he can do and what he is worth.' On another occasion, he wrote to Cambridge, 'Some think I favour my friends but these are simply officers whom I pick out on active service as very good men. As soon as I find I have made a mistake, I drop them remorselessly.' Similarly, he had also written to his wife in August 1882, 'When it can be said that I have appointed a bad man to an office, it will be time to find fault with my selections'. (9)

In fact, it was widely recognised that Wolseley had the knack of picking able men, Sir Henry Ponsonby for one writing in November 1882, 'He knows a good man and selects him and throws over all other considerations. Therefore his Staff are excellent soldiers/ Thus, new men did indeed appear within Wolseley's circle after Ashanti, Herbert Stewart being a case in point. Wolseley first encountered Stewart as an able but disillusioned young captain close to deciding on premature retirement while employed on lines of communication in Zululand. In February 1880 Wolseley was writing to his wife that he hoped 'to have him with me in my next campaign' and, within five years, Stewart was a Major-General although that last promotion came only after he had already been mortally wounded with the Desert Column in the Sudan. (10)

It was also sometimes the case that Wolseley did not have altogether a free choice of staff. It had been Greaves rather than McNeill whom Wolseley had first chosen for Ashanti in 1873 but the appointment had been vetoed by the Duke of Cambridge while he did not want Sir Archibald Alison as field commander with the white troops eventually sent out. Moreover, Wolseley had actually wanted these troops specially selected themselves but had to settle for the three regular battalions next on the roster for foreign service. On going to South Africa to supersede Chelmsford in 1879, he complained that 'many of the tools I shall have to work with, are not of my own selection, but are men chosen by HRH and the Horse Guards party'. It has to be said, however, that once Wolseley got to the Cape, he swiftly disposed of most of Chelmsford's staff with the exception of a number including Butler serving under Major-General the Hon. Hugh Clifford, who had been sent out to take over the lines of communication for the second invasion of Zululand. Others Wolseley wished to retain such as Wood, Buller and Francis Grenfell chose to go home while Colley, whose services he secured despite opposition from the Duke of Cambridge, was recalled to his appointment as military secretary to the Viceroy in September 1879 when renewed conflict broke in Afghanistan.

In the case of the Egyptian campaign, the principal field commands were taken by those already designated to command the autumn manoeuvres and, while happy with the subsequent performance of Sir John Adye as chief of staff and Drury Lowe with the Cavalry Division, Wolseley was to find fault with both Lieutenant-General G.H.S. Willis commanding 1st Division and Hamley commanding the 2nd Division. He also felt compelled to accept Cambridge's son, Major George Fitzgeorge, as private secretary and found it politic to take both the Duke of Connaught as a brigade commander and the Duke of Teck as a special service officer eventually confined to supervising foreign attaches. The son of the Secretary of State for War, Childers, was also taken on as an ADC. Three years later, Wolseley had to disappoint a number of associates such as Baker Russell and Dormer while being obliged to accept both Colonel Stanley Clarke as commander of the Light Camel Corps and Lord Charles Beresford as naval ADC at the request of the Prince of Wales, Clarke's appointment being a disappointment for McCalmont who had expected the command. (11)

Attention has been drawn to the staffing of the 1885 expedition with 'comforting relatives, influential courtiers and titled flaneurs', the relatives being Wolseley's brother, Colonel G.B. Wolseley, an AAG who took over as Butler's principal assistant when Brackenbury was attached to the River Column, and Wolseley's nephew, Major A.G. Creagh, who acted as an ADC. In fact, accusing Wolseley of nepotism and snobbery and much else including 'cheap bourgeois habits and sinister Caesarism' merely echoes the claims of his contemporary rivals. The critique of the ring, for example, in the memoir of General Sir Ian Hamilton, who was permitted to join the Sudan campaign despite having served most recently as Roberts's assistant military secretary in Madras, is often cited with its condemnation of the composition of the Desert Column. For Hamilton, it will be recalled, Wolseley's Camel Corps drawn from the Guards, cavalry and rifle regiments was no more than the result of 'an urge to do something for his pals'. (12)

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Wolseley was somewhat disingenuous in claiming that he dropped failures or continually introduced new men for, after the Ashanti campaign, appointments more often than not were merely a case of reshuffling the same cards. Wolseley's defence was that he could rely instinctively on those familiar with his working methods and in whom he had full confidence. Thus, when urging the selection of Colley, Brackenbury, Butler and Gifford for his Natal staff in 1875, Wolseley stressed the need for 'a few clever men about me whom I could trust implicitly'. Similarly, when Cambridge objected to the likes of Greaves, Brackenbury, Maurice, Baker Russell, Gifford and McCalmont accompanying Wolseley to Cyprus in 1878, he pointed out how very desirable it was that 'in carrying out a difficult job, I should be assisted by men in whom I placed the fullest confidence, etc, etc'. (13)

As may be imagined, this was not how his opponents saw it. On the one hand, there was the resentment of non-ringers in feeling excluded from campaigns and the glory attached to them. Referring to his initial arrival in Egypt in October 1884, for example, Hamilton later recalled that 'Nothing could have been more inhospitable or forbidding than the response from that special preserve of the Wolseleyites' while in initially turning down Hamilton's request to serve, the base commandant, Colonel Ardagh, remarked 'I fear I can't take the responsibility; you won't mind if I speak plainly; I fear you might be regarded as an intruder'. Similarly, an anonymous contributor to the conservatively inclined Army and Navy Magazine defined the 'Mutual Admiration Society' in 1884 as 'a small number of persons of the Staff who have obtained rapid promotion by persistently blowing their own trumpets, and knowing nothing about their own or anyone else's regiment, and who abuse all offenders who do not think as they do; but their chief point is to unite at all times in belauding the Founder of the Society especially, and each other in particular'.(14)

Certainly, the manipulation of the press by Wolseley and the additional publicity accorded the ring from the publications of his followers such as Huyshe's account of Red River and Brackenbury's account of Ashanti could not but add to the envy of other factions. There was also the undoubted vindictiveness shown to non-ringers such as Captain Glover in the Ashanti campaign or to Sir Charles Wilson, who, thrust into command of the Desert Column after the wounding of Stewart and the earlier death of Stewart's deputy, Burnaby, at Abu Klea, rightly or wrongly provided a ready scapegoat for the failure to reach Khartoum in time. As one historian has expressed it, therefore, what WTolseley might regard as displaying 'selection, innovation and constructive criticism' could easily be interpreted by rivals as 'favouritism, gimmickry and spite'. However, the Roberts ring was equally intent on self-promotion and it will perhaps be recalled that when Roberts eventually replaced Wolseley as Commander-in-Chief in 1900 the War Office was said to have become a case of 'Bobs, Jobs, Snobs & Co'.

A more significant charge against the ring was that articulated to Wolseley by the Duke of Cambridge in the autumn of 1884:

'of course, if the same officers are invariably employed, you have no area for selecting others, and give no others a chance of coming to the front. The more fresh blood is tested on these occasions the better, and I think it a most unfortunate system to confine yourself to only a very limited number of men. You have an excellent staff about you, I have not the slightest doubt. That you should like to have a certain number of these men whom you know intimately, and are therefore up to what you want, is most natural and, indeed, essential. But if you never go beyond this particular batch of men, you work these and bring nothing on; and this I think another serious misfortune in the interests of an Army called on to serve in every part of the globe.'

There is little doubt that Cambridge had a valid point although there is a certain irony in the source for what most frequently irked him was Wolseley ignoring the claims of seniority. From the point of view of Wolseley, as he expressed it while on Cyprus, the Duke was keeping back younger men and 'delighting to honour those of the old cut-and-dry model from whom nothing new is ever to be expected'. Indeed, when called upon to suggest a field commander in the event of a war against Russia in 1878 and to the dismay of the Secretary of State for War, Gathorne Hardy, the Duke proposed the man who had penned the order that sent the Light Brigade to destruction at Balaclava, the 75-year-old Sir Richard Airey. (15)

Nonetheless, it has been argued convincingly that Wolseley did become something of a prisoner of the initial success of the ring, feeling it necessary constantly to employ the same men lest his rejection of them might reflect adversely on his earlier choice. (16) Certainly, his criticism of some of his followers increased markedly over the years. Robert Home was an early casualty of Wolseley's reassessment, being, like Lintorn Simmons, a member of 'that theoretical but very impracticable corps, the Royal Engineers'. Home, who was to draw up the first mobilisation scheme in 1875 and, together with Simmons, advise government ministers on strategic options in 1878, was not again employed by Wolseley after Ashanti. During the campaign, Wolseley complained of Home's 'bumptiousness' and, two years later, also remarked that Home 'did not know I believe when he was speaking the truth or otherwise, he had been so long accustomed to say what he wished was true instead of what was actually truth itself.

In Natal it was Gifford's foolishness over a local girl that irritated Wolseley while, on Cyprus, Baker Russell proved unfit for staff work 'for which he has neither the temper nor the aptitude' although Wolseley still felt he would be an ideal cavalry commander. In South Africa in the following year more doubts appeared. Brackenbury, whose love affairs were as much an embarrassment as that of Gifford on the earlier visit, appeared increasingly selfish, 'his stoicism as regards the miseries of other' being, as Wolseley ironically put it, 'admirable'. At the same time the weak constitution of Wolseley's private secretary, St Leger Herbert, was reflected in his weak character. Maurice, to whom Wolseley felt a a great debt for nursing him through a serious bout of fever in Ashanti, was 'completely useless as a staff officer in every respecf. Maurice had also become extremely argumentative and Wolseley was inclined to believe that 'he would halt halfway up a breech to argue a point if he were aggravated to do so by some one at his elbow who took pleasure in seeing him excited' and he concluded that he had 'never yet found the hole into which this peg would fit'. (17)

By 1884 Wolseley was even more critical of individuals whom he continued to employ. Wood, who was never forgiven for signing the peace treaty with the Boers after Colley's death at Majuba in 1881, was vain and untrustworthy, a man 'who could never run straight...or be true to any Chief. Butler was as argumentative as Maurice and was exercising considerable powers of prediction but with the unfortunate trait of never giving 'anyone the benefit of his predictions until after the events have occurred'. No longer in Wolseley's confidence, Butler would 'fit in with no one'. Brack-enbury, who succeeded to command of the River Column after Earle's death at Kirbekan in February 1885, became 'a little consequential' with his new responsibilities while Buller was building up imaginary difficulties for himself and would not again be employed as chief of staff in any future campaign Wolseley might wage. (18)

Wolseley concluded in July 1885 that 'Nowadays, every man seems to think of himself only, starting with the notion that he is a Napoleon, and apparently entirely indifferent to the interests of the state'. On another occasion during the campaign he also wrote to his wife that 'as soon as they feel they have an assured footing and can do really good staff service they torture themselves with jealousy one of the other and sometimes even in their dealings with me are inclined to kick over the traces'. Certainly, as the more prominent members of the ring grew in stature and seniority, their willingness to work together for common goals was subordinated to their own ambitions. Rivalries were apparent from the beginning, Wolseley noting the competition in Ashanti between Wood and Baker Russell, which led to lasting strife between them. In 1879 both Wood and Buller, whose reputations had been greatly enhanced amid the general disasters of the opening campaign against the Zulu, chose to go home to court their popularity rather than remain to serve Wolseley. Moreover, in the subsequent operations under Wolseley's direction to catch Cetshwayo, rivalry developed between Maurice, Gifford and McCalmont. By 1884 Butler, Brack-enbury and Wood were all alienated to a greater or lesser extent from most of their colleagues. Particular tension developed between Wood and Earle and between Buller and both Butler and Brackenbury, who also declined to serve under Grenfell. Similarly, Wolseley himself intensely disliked the way Buller began constantly 'crabbing' to the dead Stewart. Ultimately, Brackenbury effectively defected to the Indians' in 1891 and one of Wolseley's objections to the establishment of a general staff for the army was certainly that Brackenbury was the obvious choice to head it. Buller, too, would be portrayed as disloyal by being prepared to accept the office of Commander-in-Chief in 1895 ahead of Wolseley and it was only a fortuitous change of government that saw Wolseley finally grasp the prize. (19)

What made such dissension within the ring so destructive by 1884 was that Wolseley's whole command style was built upon the basis of individuals willingly fulfilling specific roles in a kind of orchestrated military collective. Many of those regularly employed by Wolseley were thus technical specialists such as James Alleyne, an expert on river transport who served in the Red River, Ashanti, South African, Egyptian and Sudan campaigns as well as on Cyprus. Another was C.E. Webber, a telegraph expert, who accompanied Wolseley to Ashanti, South Africa, Egypt and the Sudan. To the war correspondent, Archibald Forbes, Wolseley appeared to instinctively assess the right role for a particular individual be it administration or leading scouts. Thus, the 'gang as an aggregate' was 'a weapon of extraordinary and diverse force' but, if broken up, its constituent parts would be 'but the withes of a faggot, with here and there a stick of exceptional stoutness'. (20)

However, the better known members of the ring also invariably filled the same kind of appointment in each campaign: Colley or Greaves as chief of staff, Buller in intelligence, Brackenbury as military secretary, Gifford and Butler in the field, McCalmont as ADC and so on. Moreover, if a particular individual was not available or became unavailable later in a campaign, Wolseley often detected a subsequent shortcoming in the standard of work being performed. The recall of Colley to Afghanistan from South Africa was one such occasion, Wolseley noting that T shall miss him beyond measure. His sound judgement was invaluable'. Brackenbury did not prove as efficient as chief of staff yet, the year before on Cyprus, it had been Brackenbury's talents as military secretary that had been most missed, Wolseley lamenting that 'when I think of the beautiful regularity with which my books were kept by him, I am sad to think of the scrawling hideousness which will be left to me as my records of Cyprus'. Again, in South Africa, when Herbert was ill, Maurice proved incapable of decyphering telegrams and when Swaine's health broke down in the Sudan, Coleridge Grove, in turn, was not an adequate substitute as military secretary since he, too, could not decypher telegrams with his predecessor's ease. (21)

While Wolseley's command style was highly personalised, he still depended upon the skills of his staff because of the very nature of colonial warfare, in which the quality of the opposition frequently paled into insignificance besides the difficulties of administration, intelligence and, especially, supply. To a large extent, this rather than any other consideration dictated the relatively large staffs in Wolseley's campaigns. On the one hand, Wolseley's campaigns were generally carefully prepared in advance. In the case of the Red River expedition, Wolseley himself supervised detail down to the loading of each individual boat. For Ashanti every potential source of information on the country was combed before Wolseley left England and Brackenbury and Huyshe lectured to the staff on the basic background on the voyage out to Cape Coast Castle, Maurice and Webber conducting a similar exercise on the voyage to South Africa in 1879. In fact, Wolseley already had considerable knowledge of the latter country for in 1875 he had taken back to England 'detailed notebooks of technical information concerning the topographical and strategic conditions and resources of Zululand'. In much the same way, a considerable amount of preparatory work was carried out in London before Wolseley set sail for Egypt in 1882. (22)

On the other hand, considerable attention continued to be paid to detail on campaign itself, in contrast it might be said with Roberts, who was a poor organiser. It is also instructive in this regard to compare Chelmsford's conduct in Zululand with that of Wolseley. For his first invasion attempt, the former had a small headquarters staff of just 14 individuals for a total force of 17,929 officers and men although each of the five columns into which Chelmsford divided his army also had approximately seven staff. Moreover, although he had issued a pamphlet on the Zulu army, Chelmsford saw no need to create an intelligence staff and, even during the second invasion attempt, appointed only one civilian in an intelligence capacity. His lines of communication were equally improvised although Clifford then assumed control for the second invasion attempt. When Wolseley arrived, Clifford was given nine assistants while Maurice assumed responsibility for intelligence. In Ashanti, Colley had been brought out especially 'to take upon him the arduous, responsible and comparatively uninteresting duties of organisation and command of transport' and had quite simply brought 'order to chaos'. Huyshe had been responsible for military survey work and Buller for intelligence. Although Wolseley's staff appointments invariably combined the duties of both adjutant general's department - orders, discipline, etc - and quartermaster general's department movement, reconnaissance, quartering, etc - in Egypt and the Sudan, there was again a separate lines of communication staff headed by Earle and Wood respectively. Similarly, Buller had six assistants for intelligence work in Egypt and Wilson five assistants in the Sudan, the most prominent of whom was Captain Herbert Kitchener.

Equally important to Wolseley were his ADCs, secretaries and his chiefs of staff. While McCalmont regarded his duties as ADC on Cyprus as largely superfluous when there were two secretaries and his work in South Africa after the conclusion of hostilities confined to preventing the locals from 'bothering' Wolseley, the role was much enhanced on campaign. In Ashanti, for example, all the ADCs had been effectively plunged into command positions when it was realised that more officers were required to supervise widely dispersed troops in heavily forested terrain. During the hunt for Cetshwayo, Wolseley's ADCs had similarly each headed searching groups while all of Wolseley's staff joined in the final assault on Sekukuni's stronghold. The function of the military and private secretaries was to deal with military and political paperwork respectively and thus to draft and transmit both orders and correspondence and, with the field commanders and chiefs of staff, have been characterised as the 'central pivots of authority, decision an power' within the ring though they all remained, of course, subordinate to Wolseley.(23)

The position of Wolseley's chiefs of staff was a particularly interesting one. They did invariably have a considerable amount of administrative work, Wolseley commenting of Ashanti that few could imagine how much 'as the staff duties with a regular army afford no data upon the Chief Staff Officer of a force such as that under my command'. McNeill in Ashanti and Adye in Egypt were both also designated as Wolseley's second in command in much the same way that Wolseley himself was designated chief of staff to Napier in the event of a war with Russia in 1878. Similarly, whatever Wolseley's doubts about Buller's capacity for staff work in the Sudan, once Stewart was wounded it was still Buller followed by Greaves and then Wood whom Wolseley considered in February 1885 as the best sequence of succession in the event of becoming a casualty himself.

However, if the chief of staff was technically Wolseley's deputy, the work required of them fell short of participating in real decision making for all that Wolseley was to claim with respect to Buller in November 1884 that, 'In dealing with a Chief of Staff in whom one has every confidence I feel too much inclined, I know, to give him a free hand'. Indeed, in October Wolseley had specifically told Buller that, 'It is a very stupid thing in any position in life to keep a dog & bark yourself and that 'I had no intention of attempting to be my own Chief of the Staff. Wolseley explained this on the grounds that too many general officers felt they were not performing their duties adequately if they did not constantly look into matters 'that others have been detailed to do' and that his own experience on the staff earlier in his career had taught him 'what a bore it is to have the man who is your immediate superior doing your work & leaving you idle'.

Nevertheless, it can be noted that Wolseley also charged Buller 'that he must keep me constantly, hourly if necessary, informed of all he was doingf and Buller himself interpreted his responsibilities in a distinctly limited way. On 3 October 1884 he wrote, 'Wolseley allows me as much responsibility as I choose to accept'. However, he then continued, 'I think that I have the situation that really suits me best, one, that is, involving all the responsibility of execution without those of invention and preliminary organisation'. His task, therefore, was seen as one of 'delivery of the advanced base of the striking force' and the section in the official history on the work of Buller's department similarly suggests that its only function was to move the field force forward to Dongola and bring up sufficient supplies to enable it to operate beyond. It is not perhaps surprising, therefore, to find Buller located at Wadi Haifa in December while Wolseley was forward at Korti some 360 miles apart and Buller complaining that, while he had been able to communicate by telegraph, he had seen Wolseley for only eight hours in two months. In the closing stages of the campaign, when Buller had again assumed the duties of chief of staff after being sent forward to take over the Desert Column, he again complained that Wolseley had gone back to Cairo while he stayed at Dongola without any clear idea of Wolseley's plans. (24)

Earlier, in Egypt in 1882 Adye had gone ahead to prepare the base for the coming campaign and had been firmly instructed to do nothing to initiate troop movement until Wolseley arrived. His attitude to his field commanders was very similar. Again, it is the personalised aspect to Wolseley's command style that is most apparent, Wolseley closely supervising operations while seeming to grant his subordinates considerable latitude. What primarily contributed to the breakdown in the relationship between Wolseley and the notoriously prickly Hamley in Egypt was the tatter's temerity in 'suggesting7 a plan of campaign to Wolseley, Hamley having decided that 'If I call myself a strategist, I ought to behave as such'. Similarly, although ostensibly leaving the tactical details to his subordinates, Wolseley held a dawn conference of his general officers overlooking what was to be the battlefield of Tel el Kebir and 'there personally explained to them the nature of the intended movement7. In fact, some of the troops did not follow Wolseley's suggested march formations during the night advance but Wolseley was well up with the troops and, at one point, directly controlling the Highland Brigade. He had been under fire in earlier reconnaissances and in Ashanti had been involved in the fighting during an early foray to Essaman nominally under Wood's command and had also been knocked down by one bullet hitting his helmet in the action at Ordahsu before Kumasi. (25)

There were occasions when Wolseley did leave matters to his subordinates and they failed him, Earle fortuitously retrieving some of the errors of supply made by Adye in Egypt. Nevertheless, it was principally only the Sudan campaign in which the system failed comprehensively. For one thing, it was the first campaign in which Wolseley's conduct of a campaign was in any way limited by government, the Secretary of State refusing to allow him to go any further forward than Korti. Wolseley complained that he had not previously been 'chained to the rear in a campaign' and was clearly hard put to contain himself so far from the action. For another, the sheer distances involved - it was 1,600 miles from Cairo to Khartoum - proved too great for personal control to be exercised over every feature of the campaign. Wolseley, from whom the truth was initially concealed, blamed himself when all progress on the river was halted by Buller's failure to check that coal supplies had been properly arranged for the steamers. It appears likely that he never discovered how many mistakes were being made with respect to camel transport by Lieutenant Colonel Furse - later a well know author on logistics - as director of transport. However, he could not be everywhere and it might well be argued that, by maintaining such close control for so long, he had hardly encouraged the development of initiative in his subordinates. Certainly, they did not always thrive when left to their own devices, the elementary blunders of Colley, the most brilliant intellect in the army, in the First Boer War being a particular example. (26)

Wolseley considered that 'the sun of my luck set when Stewart was wounded' but, in fact, from its very conception the Sudan campaign exposed mercilessly the flaws in the ring as a command system. Wolseley was respected rather than liked and he had associates rather than friends but, despite the detached aloof manner, the 'Chief as he was know to his staff, exuded a confidence which seemingly communicated to all around him. The public Wolseley had a charm and tact conspicuously lacking in his private correspondence and diaries and he was generally able to co-ordinate the diverse talents of his chosen subordinates in a way well suited to the special characteristics of colonial campaigning. But, in the last analysis, improvisation was no substitute for a proper general staff structure and Wolseley's capacity to manage affairs decreased in proportion to the growth in the scale of operations.

Returning in full circle to the point at which the paper began, it will be recalled that Wolseley was something of a student of the American Civil War. However, it was not Grant who caught Wolseley's imagination but Lee -the 'ablest soldier of my day'; the 'highly cultivated military genius'; the 'greatest man I ever conversed with' and one who towered even over Charles Gordon, who was the only other man in whose presence Wolseley ever felt awed.27 That in itself is perhaps adequate comment on arguably the greatest soldier produced by the Victorian army.

This paper was presented at the British Commission for Military History conference, 'Commanders and their staffs' held at the University of Buckingham in July 1991.

1. G.C. Ward, R. Burns and K. Burns, The Civil War (Bodley Head, London, 1991), p. 276; M. Howard, The Franco-Prussian War (Methuen edition, London, 1981), p. 62.

2. H. Bailes, Technology and Imperialism: A Case Study of the Victorian Army in Africa', Victorian Studies 24,1980-81, pp. 82-104; E. Spiers, The Army and Society, 1815 -1914 (Longman, London, 1980), pp. 209-10.

3. H. Bailes, Tatterns of Thought in the Late Victorian Army', Journal of Strategic Studies 4,1981, pp. 29-45.

4. C.E. Callwell (ed.), The Memoirs of Major-General Sir Hugh McCalmont (Hutchinson, London, 1924), pp. 47-48.

5. Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley, The Story of a Soldier's Life (Constable, London, 1903), II, p. 201; E. McCourt, Remember Butler (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1967), pp. 173-74.

6. Sir G. Greaves, The Memoirs of General Sir George Greaves (Murray, London, 1924), pp. 130-31; Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, From Midshipman to Field Marshal (Methuen, London, 1906), II, pp. 254-55; PRO WO 147/3, entry for 31 October 1873.

7. Wolseley, Soldier's Life, II, p. 278; A. Preston (ed.), Sir Garnet Wolseley's South African
Diaries (Natal), 1875 (Balkema, Cape Town, 1971), p. 62; B. Bond, The Victorian Army and the Staff College (Eyre Methuen, London, 1972), pp. 128-29.
8. G. Harries-Jenkins, The Army in Victorian Society (Rout-ledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1977), pp. 163-65; Bond, Victorian Army, pp. 129-30.

9. A.R. Godwin-Austen, The Staff and the Staff College (Constable, London, 1927), pp. 207-08; Sir F. Maurice and Sir G. Arthur, The Life of Lord Wolseley (Heinemann, London, 1924), p. 183; J. Lehmann, All Sir Garnet (Cape, London, 1964), p. 317.

10. A. Preston, 'Wolseley, the Khartoum Relief Expedition and the Defence of India' in A. Preston and P. Dennis (eds), Swords and Covenants (Croom Helm, London, 1976), pp. 89122; Ibid, (ed.), Sir Garnet Wolseley's South African Journal, 1879-80 (Balkema, Cape Town, 1973), p. 224.

11. Greaves, Memoirs, p. 123; Preston, Journal, p. 38; Lehmann, All Sir Garnet, pp. 303-4; MJ. Williams, 'The Egyptian Campaign, 1882' in B. Bond (ed.), Victorian Military Campaigns (Hutchinson, London, 1967), pp. 243-278; J. Symons, England's Pride (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1965), p. 95; Callwell, McCalmont, p. 233.

12. Preston, 'Khartoum Relief Expedition', pp. 89-122; General Sir Ian Hamilton, Listening for the Drums (Faber & Faber, London, 1944), p. 177.

13. Lehmann, All Sir Garnet, p. 208; A. Preston, 'Sir Garnet Wolseley and the Cyprus Expedition, 1878', Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research XLV, 181,1967, pp. 4-16.

14. Hamilton, Listening for the Drums, pp. 172-173; Bailes, 'Patterns of Thoughf, pp. 29-45.

15. S. Badsey, All Sir Garnet (East Sussex County Library, Hove, 1981), p. 5; Lehmann, All Sir Garnet, p. 388; Godwin-Austen, Staff and Staff College, p. 207; Preston, 'Wolseley and Cyprus', pp. 4-16; Ibid, Trustrated Great Gamesmanship: Sir Garnet Wolseley's Plans for War Against Russia, 1873-78', International History Review 2,1980, pp. 239-265.

16. Preston, Diaries, p. 88.

17. PRO, WO 147/3, Wolseley's Ashanti Diary, entries for 10 October and 3 December 1873; Preston, Diaries, pp. 159, 227, 246; Ibid, 'Wolseley and Cyprus', pp. 4-16; Ibid, Journal, pp. 76, 96,109,149.

18. A. Preston (ed.), In Relief of Gordon: Lord Wolseley's Campaign Journal of the Khartoum Relief Expedition, 1884 -1885 (Hutchinson, London, 1967), pp. 4,75-6,11213,158,162, 171.

19. Ibid, Relief, p. 218; Callwell, McCalmont, p. 174; Preston, Diaries, p. 92; Wolseley, Soldier's Life, II, p. 203; Lord E. Gleichen, A Guardsman's Memoirs (Blackwood, Edinburgh & London, 1932), p. 118; Preston, Journal, p. 95; Ibid, Relief, pp. 67,75-6,166,232-33; Lehmann, All Sir Garnet, p. 360; Bond, Victorian Army, p. 50; T. Pakenham, The Boer War (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1979), p. 76.

20. J. Luvaas, The Education of an Army (Cassell, London, 1965), p. 215.

21. Preston, Journal, pp. 109,149,224; Sir G. Arthur (ed.), The Letters of Lord and Lady Wolseley, 1870 -1911 (Heinemann, London, 1922), pp. 31, 204; Preston, Relief, pp. 141-3.

22. The Hon. Sir J. Fortescue, Following the Drum (Blackwood, Edinburgh and London, 1931), p. 132; PRO, WO 147/3, entry for 1 October 1873; Preston, Journal, p. 41; C. Ballard, 'Sir Garnet Wolseley and John Dunn' in A. Duminy and C. Ballard (eds), The Anglo-Zulu War: New Perspectives (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1981), p. 130; J.F. Maurice, The Military History of the Campaign of 1882 in Egypt (HMSO, London, 1887), pp. 4-9.

23. A Narrative of the Field Operations Connected with the Zulu War of 1879 (HMSO, London, 1881), pp. 141-154; J. Laband, Companion to the Narrative of the Field Operations Connected with Zulu War of 1879 (N & S Press, Constantia, 1989), p. 9; Bailes, Technology and Imperialism', pp. 82-104; H. Brackenbury, The Ashanti War: A Narrative (Blackwood, Edinburgh and London, 1874), I, p. 368; Wolseley, Soldier's Life, II, p. 317; Callwell, McCalmont, pp. 168-69; Preston, Diaries, p. 88.
24. Brackenbury, Ashanti War, pp. 304-6; Preston, Relief, pp. 45-6,67,144; C.H. Melville, The Life of General SirRedvers Buller (Arnold, London, 1923), I, pp. 204,209,251; History of the Sudan Campaign (HMSO, London, 1889), I, pp. 67-9.

25. Maurice, Campaign of 1882, pp. 20, 73,84; Luvaas, Education, p. 155.

26. Williams, 'Egyptian Campaign', pp. 243-78; Arthur, Letters, p. 173; Preston, Relief, pp. 67-8; Lehmann, All Sir Garnet, p. 367; Symons, England's Pride, pp. 128-29,174-76, 286.

27. J. Luvaas, The Military Legacy of the Civil War (University Press of Kansas edition, 1988), p. 50; Lehmann, All Sir Garnet, pp. 121,379; Wolseley, Soldier's Life, II, pp. 139-40. J. Lehmann, TheFirst Boer War (Cape, London, 1972), p. 87 makes the point that Lee was also Colley's hero.

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen' issue 69, June 1992


General Enquiries

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
20 Priory Road
RG14 7QN, United Kingdom


Subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter. You do not need to be a member to receive it.

Full Name (*)

Please type your full name.
E-mail (*)

Invalid email address.

A Registered Charity

Number 1117006

Go to the Charity Commision's web site