Author: Michael Boyes
Publisher: Phillimore & Co Ltd (September 2006)
The Biblical injunction to go forth and multiply was certainly taken up with alacrity by the Reverend Robert Le Marchant, Rector of Little Rissington in Gloucestershire, and his wife Eliza following their marriage in 1850. Together they had fifteen children, nine girls and six boys, all of whom survived well beyond childhood, which was quite an achievement for those born in the nineteenth century. Michael Boyes has taken a great interest in the Le Marchant children and has already written about the nine daughters, none of whom married. This second study focuses on all the boys except one, John Gaspard, who was the eldest and the better educated of the lot. Having studied at Cambridge and the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, he eventually ended up in the City and did quite well for himself. Nevertheless, Boyes has preferred to concentrate on those sons who joined the services, four in the army and one in the navy. Although they had unremarkable careers, Boyes has written an entertaining and informative book that provides a vivid insight into army and navy life during the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods.
The great-grandfather of the boys was Major-General John Gaspard Le Marchant, who was killed leading his heavy cavalry in a famous charge at Salamanca in 1812.Thus, having been provided with a fine military background, and given their lack of education (they were tutored at home before going to school about aged 14), the armed services were the only viable option for the five boys who preferred sports to study, and were members of the gentry. By their social standards they were poor, so the four army sons, Edward, Basil, Cecil and Louis, first joined the militia before transferring to the regular army. Only Evelyn, who joined the navy aged 13 as a cadet, went straight into the main service.
As they came from rather straightened circumstances all the boys found it difficult to survive on their pay and relied on the help of wealthier relatives until they became high-ranking officers. Lack of means meant putting off marriage and only three, Edward, Evelyn and Basil, eventually tied the knot, although Basil did it twice. Unlike their parents they were not prolific and between them had only three children who then failed to reproduce. Cecil, Louis and their civilian brother, John Gaspard, preferred to remain batchelors. Consequently, the family has died out but, as Boyes tells us, they are fondly remembered in the Cotswolds.
In spite of the many wars fought during the Victorian and Edwardian periods the brothers were given few opportunities to seek glory. Edward served in Afghanistan and Burma but missed the fighting and was murdered in the twilight of his career. His own son, who was nearly five when his father was killed, lost his life during the battle of the Somme in 1916.
Basil was commissioned in 1881 aged 22, but had to wait for the Second Anglo-Boer War before he saw action. He was wounded in 1901 and sent home and although he campaigned against the Zakka Khel Afridis in 1908 he did not take part in the fighting. He retired from the army in 1909 having lost his first wife three years earlier after giving birth to their son. He remarried in 1910 and this marriage lasted for forty years.
Cecil's early career was a bit more exciting because he fought at the battle of Abu Klea in January 1885. He was in the Royal Sussex regiment who were attacked from behind when the square broke. Cecil went no farther during the campaign because his company was left behind to guard the wells over which the battle had been fought. His last campaign was in 1888 when he took part in the Black Mountain Expedition on the north-west frontier. Owing to increasing deafness, Cecil retired from the army in 1903 aged only 42 and eventually lived the life of a gentleman of leisure.
Louis, who joined the regulars in 1886, first saw active service in 1895. He took part in the relief of Chitral but served mainly in the garrison guarding the Malakand Pass. Like his brother Basil he had to wait until the outbreak of the South African War to take part in any fighting, but then spent most of his time on blokckhouse duty. Louis, however, was a competent officer and was sent to France in August 1914 where he fought at Le Cateau. Just as he was getting into his stride he was killed by a sniper during the battle of the Marne.
Evelyn was the only son to join the navy. After a shaky start he eventually settled into his career and rose steadily through the ranks. He sailed around the world visiting places such as Palestine and Japan, and evidently enjoyed life ashore. He was often invited to parties and took part in many sporting competitions at which he excelled. His biggest moment came when he was selected as one of the junior officers to accompany Queen Victoria's midshipmen grandsons, Albert Victor and George (later George V), on their world cruise between 1880 and 1882. By 1914, Evelyn had retired as rear-admiral but volunteered when war broke out and finally saw some action. He got into trouble in Malta over mine-sweeping problems in 1916, but was soon commanding convoy escorts. His ship narrowly escaped destruction in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917 and the following year it was torpedoed. He retired again after the war and at least had the compensation of a happy family life once his career finally was over. Remarkably all the brothers who survived their military careers lived until their eighties or nineties.
Boyes' book is much more than the sum of its parts. The lives of the Le Marchant men are firmly put into the context of the times and we get a fascinating glimpse into army and navy life. The book is lavishly illustrated with family photographs, as well as others that give a flavour of the times. For anyone wanting to know more about the sort of lives military and naval men led, then this is the perfect place to start.