One of the great pleasures in moving into an old house like Hungerton is finding yourself enveloped by history. Growing up in New Zealand, with little in the way of tangible pre-1850 history*, living in an 18th century property and being in daily contact with its contents is a real joy to me. Unfortunately one of the few sadnesses is that not all of our history stays with us.
There was a cluster of famous ancestors in Isabel’s family in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, headed by the great Major-General, John Gaspard le Marchant (more about him in a minute). Denis, one of his sons, was Clerk to the House of Commons between 1850-1871 for which he received a hereditary baronetcy. Isabel’s uncle, Sir Francis, whose watercolours grace this website, was the latest recipient of the title, and upon his death last year the title jumped to another branch of the family – patrilineality lives! The reason I’m bringing this up is that there are a number of items attached to the title (“entailed“) – documents, furniture, paintings, medals… and a sword, all of which were in the house when we arrived, and all have just left us for good.
Some of the items we didn’t mind saying goodbye to – they’re beautiful but really belong somewhere where they’ll be looked after properly. Thankfully their new home will do this perfectly, so it wasn’t a wrench to see them go. Other things… well, let’s just say that if we’d known a good forger…
Most of the precious things we wanted to hide relate to the General; born in 1766 and died, aged 46, at the Battle of Salamanca. His headmaster called him ‘the greatest dunce that I have ever met’, and he was eventually withdrawn from school by his father. His education was finished at home under the tutelage of the family butler, an educated American loyalist, and Le Marchant made up for past neglect by acquiring habits of application that lasted a lifetime.
He was born into a prestigious Guernsey merchant family and commissioned in the British army despite having neither the social connections nor the wealth required for advancement. In fact, it was exceptionally rare at the time for anyone from the island to join the military. His father purchased an Ensign for him in the Wiltshire Militia (the lowest officer rank), and shortly after arriving the 16 year-old Le Marchant challenged his Colonel, Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester and 1st Earl of Carnarvon, to a duel for insulting him. The Colonel managed to smooth things over, but within weeks the impetuous Le Marchant had to be prevented from duelling with a civilian. Obviously someone gave him a proper talking to as he was never to issue a challenge again, and in later life expressed a great horror of duelling.
On the eve of embarking with his regiment for Gibraltar, Le Marchant was enticed to a gaming house in Dublin by a superior officer, who won £250 from him. The loss should have meant the sacrifice of his commission, but the regimental paymaster came to his rescue and lent him the money – on the provision that Le Marchant gave a promise, which he religiously kept, never to touch cards again. Unable to pay for the Officer’s Mess in Gibraltar due to repaying his debt (and with no mention to anyone of his misfortune) he spent most of his spare time painting watercolours in the surrounding countryside, avoiding his fellow officers and earning their animosity in the process. It was only after the paymaster eventually re-joined the regiment, some 18 months later, that the real reason for his parsimony became known, resulting in the other officers tending their apologies and Le Marchant being accepted back into the fold.
His first significant contribution came when he was still a Captain. As part of the British expeditionary force to Flanders during the early French revolutionary war (1793-1794), he had overheard an Austrian Officer saying that the British swordsmanship was “most entertaining” but reminded him of “someone chopping wood”. Conscious of a lack of professional skill and the clumsy design of the heavy, over-long swords, he designed a new sabre, in collaboration with the Birmingham sword cutler Henry Osborn. This new sword he somehow managed to get accepted and adopted as standard issue by the British Army. The Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre is still described as the finest cutting sword ever manufactured in quantity
Shocked by the number of men who were injuring themselves – and their horses – through their ineptitude, his next self-appointed task was to write the “Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Calvary”, an instruction manual for cavalry fighting that was adopted by the army as part of its official regulations. King George III made himself familiar with the exercises, quizzing his generals about it during their audiences, and it became so popular that schoolboys practiced the moves in lanes up and down the country.
In 1797 Le Marchant was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel at the direct behest of the king, whom he’d befriended. As he lacked the family influence and wealth normally necessary for advances in rank, King George is reported as saying to him “I dare say many persons will claim the merit of your promotion; now I wish you to know that whatever merit there is in it rests entirely between you and me, for no one else is concerned in it”. Even so, he did end up transferring regiment as he found it difficult to keep company with the immensely wealthy and fashionable commander Henry, Lord Paget (he of, “My God, sir, I’ve lost my leg” fame). As an indication of the wealth required, an officer’s uniform of the Light Dragoons would set you back around £135, the equivalent of nearly 10 years’ pay for a young officer. Le Marchant’s salary was in no way sufficient to cover the costs attributable to his rank… and there was also the issue of a wife and 10 kids to feed.
Alongside the transformation of the cavalry as an effective fighting force, there is yet another achievement of his, one with an even greater impact on the future of the British Army. By the turn of the century there had been military colleges on the continent for decades – Napoleon had attended the military academy at Brienne-le-Château before graduating to the École Militaire in Paris (founded in 1750). However, other than the school for artillery officers at Woolwich, there was still no British equivalent. A person of substance would buy their commission and then learn, or not, on the job, with their advancement tied to their financial muscle, rather than their capability as an officer.
Having already started a voluntary school for young officers in 1797, it took Le Marchant two further years of persuading the great and the good that such an institution was necessary, eventually overcoming considerable opposition over both the cost and the fear that it would upset the balance of British society. His scheme for establishing two Royal Military Colleges, one for teaching new officer cadets, the other for the development of existing officers, was finally approved by Parliament in 1801 – along with a grant of £30,000. Le Marchant became the first Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent-General of the College, a position he held for 9 years. The junior department moved to the purpose built premises at Sandhurst in 1812, with the senior department following a couple of years later. Le Marchant is recognised as Sandhurst’s instigator and founder.
Having been promoted to Major-General in June 1811, he was told by the Adjutant General that “his situation at the College was incompatible with his rank, and he must therefore expect to be immediately removed”. Wellington requested he joined him in the Iberian Peninsular to take command of a British Heavy Cavalry Brigade against the French. On arrival in Portugal, Le Marchant was informed that his wife had died and Wellington suggested that he should return to England to look after his children. Le Marchant refused, saying his family would take them in, and that he was needed with his troops.
He was present at the capture of Ciudad Rodrigo, and at the Battle of Villagarcia in April 1812, when he overthrew two French regiments of cavalry with three squadrons of the 5th dragoon guards, leading his men from the front. It’s worth taking a little time to read the details of the battle, a minor conflict but one that illustrates the quality of his leadership – “Le Marchant led his dragoon guards out of the woods and they formed their ranks whilst accelerating into the charge.”
At the battle of Salamanca, on the 22 July 1812, Le Marchant’s brigade, consisting of the 5th dragoon guards and the 3rd dragoons, was posted at the right centre of the allies.
Wellington said to Le Marchant that he must take the first favourable opportunity to engage the enemy’s infantry, “You must then charge at all hazards” was his final instruction. The resulting attack by his Heavy Cavalry was the most destructive charge of the entire Napoleonic era, his brigade utterly routing a French infantry division with over fifteen hundred prisoners taken. Many of the French infantrymen sought the protection of the British infantry to escape the sabres of the dragoons.
Le Marchant, knowing he had achieved a magnificent success and having cut down six of the enemy by his own hand, was leading a squadron against the last of the formed French infantry when he was shot and killed. He was buried hastily in an olive-grove near by, and a monument was put up to his memory in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wellington cried when he heard the news.
Alongside his unending dedication to the advancement of the Army as an effective fighting force, he was both an exceptionally proficient cavalryman and a highly regarded intellectual soldier. He wrote daily to his wife and still found time to paint landscapes as he travelled. He acquired a habit of painting the battlefield the day before conflict began, which provided him with both a clear understanding of the terrain he would fight over, and a useful visual representation when the smoke of the canon and muskets obscured all visibility. All the watercolours included on this page are by his hand.
All traces of him have now left Hungerton, and we will miss him in our lives.
* before Te Papa, and before a great deal of NZ history was taught at school (at least, there was little that I can remember, but that might be saying more about me than the quality of NZ education in the 80s)