Saturday, 30 April 2011
The aristocrat formerly known as Prince William must be pretty pleased with how his wedding went yesterday, but what, I wonder, does he make of his new name?
I guess nobody turns down the chance to become a Duke, but whether or not he realises that he is now sharing a name with the biggest buffoon ever to command the British Army is another question.
Prince George of Cambridge wasn't born in the fens, but in Hanover, and was the grandson of King George III of England, the mad one. He came to England after serving for a time in the Hanoverian army and was soon the Colonel of fashionable cavalry regiment. The nearest he got to active service was garrisoning the Ionian Islands, but nevertheless he swiftly became Inspector of Cavalry.
In 1854 the first major European was in nearly two generations broke out. In the intervening years the British Army had hardly been at peace though, and had been fighting a series of bloody wars against fearsome Sikhs and Afghans. The Honourable East India Company possibly had more experienced officers in its service than any other army in the world, and they all wanted to make their names fighting the Russians.
However in the mid nineteenth century heroic service on the Plains of Afghanistan counted for a lot less than blue blood, and so the 'Indians' stayed out east and George sailed to Crimea in command of a Division of Infantry.
Why the world's first industrial nation should go to war with an army whose leadership had more titles, and less military experience, the top table at yesterday's wedding is such a remarkable fact that it needs some explanation. The British Establishment doesn't usually need much of an excuse to be incompetent, but in this case the stupidity was at least partially wilful.
Back in the good old days of the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell had turned the course of history by putting together a pretty effective force of cavalry, called his Ironsides. So thoroughly professional were they that Prince Ruport's dandified Cavaliers were swiftly put to flight and King Charles's head was soon enough on the block.
This act of regicide, and the Commonwealth that was inaugurated afterwards at sword point, so horrified the aristocracy that once the monarchy was restored they vowed to never let it happen again.
Hence forth officers in the army would not be promoted on merit, but would have to buy their rank. The idea was that the army would then be led by gentleman of private means who, having no need of the King's shilling, would fight only in defence of their own wealth and status and never against their own kind.
The army survived the Napoleonic Wars thanks to the genius of the Duke of Wellington, and a sort of Darwinian natural selection that allowed talented, but impoverished officers, to rise to the top by filling dead men’s shoes.
The virtues of an aristocratic army were then shown as they rounded up Luddites and massacred protesting Manchunians. The Crimean War though was to prove a slightly tougher test of this force than Peterloo.
The first battle was an assault across the River Alma. Lord Raglan had put the famous Light Division, of Peninsula fame, up front and stuck George's 1st Division right behind them. Raglan then issued one of his famously ambiguous orders and told George to "act as necessary".
A professional soldier would have understood immediately that his job was to support the Light Division, reinforcing success and guarding against failure. George though was no such thing. The Lights carried the Russian defences at bayonet point, but then faced an immediate counter attack. George did nothing and so the Light Division was repulsed, and the army had to attack the Russian position all over again.
A real army would at this point have either quietly found a safe posting for George to be sent to where he couldn't do any more harm, or shot him to encourage the others, but then the British Army in 1854 wasn't a real army. The McNeill–Tulloch Report into the war later concluded that the senior officers weren't fit to dig latrines, but this was quietly shelved and a better report compiled, thus demonstrating that they couldn't even pull off a good cover up, and George ended up Commander-in-Chief of the entire army.
He then spent the next forty years vigorously resisting any attempt to bring the army into the modern age. His most famous quip, delivered to a fellow officer, was "Brains? I don't believe in brains! You haven't any, I know, Sir!", pretty much summed up his approach to soldiering.
An example of how little he learnt from the debacle of Crimea is that when war with Russia again looked likely in 1878, the man he named to lead the crucial expedition was the same officer who penned the order that sent the Light Brigade to their doom, now 75 years old.
Fortunately for the nation (or unfortunately for our enemies, depending on your point of view) George had a nemesis in the form of Sir Garnet Wolseley. As aristocratic and snobbish as any of his brother officers, Wolseley though didn't purchase his commission and initially served in the engineers, where promotion was by examination. He then fought and won a series of small wars for the nation, which gave him the clout to get things done. He slowly pushed through a degree of reform and reduced George's role to largely that of being a figurehead. Ironically he eventually succeed him as Commander-in-Chief only to discover he now had no power to do anything.
When war broke out in South Africa in 1899 the day was saved by the Army Corps Wolseley had formed in the teeth of George's intransigence, but the catastrophes of Black Week showed that very little had really changed since the Alma.
However if his military conquests were almost non-existent, in the bedroom George had considerably more success. Nominally, but possibly not legally, married to an actress, his bedpost had more notches in it than most. Whilst he may never have been able to out think Wolseley, he appears to have had the edge in other ways.
However as none of the fruit of his overactive loins were considered legitimate by the exacting standards of the time, his title lapsed on his death until it was revived yesterday to be given, by the Queen, to Prince William.
I wonder what message she was trying to send to her grandson?