Sir Garnet Wolseley was the leading imperial soldier of the nineteenth century. He was involved many of the major imperial issues of the time including the Indian Rebellion, the Opium Wars, and Canadian federation. He reflected many of the imperial attitudes of the century including a missionary zeal to spread Christianity, a commitment to civilise native peoples and the belief that the British people had a manifest destiny to rule and develop the colonies of the empire.
He was in charge of a force of soldiers that conquered the Ashanti people and destroyed their capital, Kumasi, and by so doing was to popularise the role of the Christian soldier throughout the empire. From the campaign to pacify west Africa in 1873/4 to the end of the century, imperial soldiers captured the public’s attention and became the focus for a nation eager to read of the exploits of Britain’s imperial exploits. This was the era when Britain’s dominance of the world was being challenged and imperialism took a central position on the world stage. New emerging nations were eager to develop their own empires and this led to a scramble to acquire new colonies especially in Africa where tribal kingdoms were carved up in the Scramble for Africa.
Joining the Army
Wolseley was born on 4 June 1833 near Dublin. His father was in the army but died when Wolseley was seven leaving the family to struggle. At fourteen Wolseley left school to enter a position in a land surveyors office in Dublin. He can’t have been fully committed to the work for he thought about entering the Church but instead opted to join the army, helped by his uncles who took him under their wing. To get a commission in those days required money to purchase a commission or the patronage or someone like the Duke of Wellington. Wolseley’s attempts to persuade the Duke to sponsor Wolseley’s entrance into the army came to nothing but his mother’s letter to the Duke was more persuasive and on 12 March 1852 Garnet Wolseley was gazetted as an ensign in the 12th Foot at the age of 18 and sent to Chatham from where he embarked on an expedition bound for India. The journey lasted five months after which his battalion was sent up the Irrawaddy river in Burma to protect British supplies from attack. He was injured in an attack on an enemy stockade and then contracted cholera so returned to England.
After his coalescence, Wolseley was promoted and transferred to the 90th Light infantry. He was in Dublin with the battalion when it was called out to the Crimea to provide reinforcements after the battles of the Alma, Balaklava and Inkerman. It was during this war that Wolseley began to think more and more about the strategy of fighting and conducting campaigns. He came to realise that many officers, both senior and junior, had little interest in their profession. During the Crimean campaign Wolseley served as an engineer in the front line where he was severely injured in the summer of 1855, injuring his jaw, cheek and his eye during a shell bombardment. He was transferred to hospital but never recovered the use of his right eye.
China and the Indian Rebellion
Having recovered from his injuries, Wolseley’s next overseas campaign was due to be in China but the ship in which he was travelling hit a rock and he and the battalion were taken first to Singapore and then to Calcutta, by which time the the Indian Rebellion had broken out and the 90th was required to march up the Ganges valley to help lift the sieges of Lucknow and Cawnpore. It was at Cawnpore that Wolseley saw first hand evidence of the murder of over 100 women and children. Wolseley’s response to seeing the hair and blood of the victims was to declare that ‘a more sickening,a more maddening sight no Englishman had ever looked upon’. The site of the massacre brought a feeling for revenge and a belief that the Indian people had betrayed the trust and humanity of the British people. The feeling for revenge led to the deaths of thousands of Indian at the hands of British soldiers as they hunted down those they believed had taken part in the rebellion against British authority in India. Having recovered from his injuries, Wolseley’s next overseas campaign was due to be in China but the ship in which he was travelling hit a rock and he and the battalion were taken first to Singapore and then to Calcutta, by which time the the Indian Rebellion had broken out and the 90th was required to march up the Ganges valley to help lift the sieges of Lucknow and Cawnpore. It was at Cawnpore that Wolseley saw first hand evidence of the murder of over 100 women and children. Wolseley’s response to seeing the hair and blood of the victims was to declare that ‘a more sickening,a more maddening sight no Englishman had ever looked upon’.
The site of the massacre brought a feeling for revenge and a belief that the Indian people had betrayed the trust and humanity of the British people. The feeling for revenge led to the deaths of thousands of Indians as British soldiers hunted down rebel soldiers.
After the relief of Cawnpore, Wolseley took part in the march on Lucknow and once the European population had been evacuated, Wolseley remained behind until Lucknow was taken. He was then appointed Quartermaster General to Major General Hope Grant. This marked the end of Wolseley’s service as a regimental commander. In his new role he took part in the clearing of Oudh and when Hope Grant was appointed to go to China to lead an expedition that was to obtain the ratification of the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin.
The China expedition of 1860 consisted of 11,000 British troops and 6,500 French troops. They were to take the forts guarding the River Peiho before marching on Peking which was taken with the Summer Palace looted.
The USA and Canada
Following Peking Wolseley spent some time in the USA during the American Civil War, during which he observed carefully the tactics being used by both sides and managed to get permission to visit the camp of General Lee. Following the end of the war Wolseley was appointed as commandant of a new militia officer camp in Canada near Montreal. An abortive invasion by Fenians in 1865 increased security fears about the position of Canada and in 1870 Wolseley was to lead an expedition into the Canadian interior to deal with an insurrection by a group opposed to Canadian federation and the inclusion of the Red River area in to that federation. Wolseley planned meticulously for the 1200 mile expedition but when they reached their destination of Fort Garry (opposite the present day city of Winnepeg),the rebels had fled, including the leader Louis Riel.
The beginning of a career at the War Office
In 1871 Wolseley was recalled to London to begin a career as an administrator at
the war Office. This was a time when army reform was a hot topic as a result of
Cardwell introducing a number of initiatives most of which had the support of Wolseley.
In 1873 though Wolseley was given command of an expedition that was to go to west
Africa as a result of raids by the Ashanti on British trading forts and those who
traded with the British. Wolseley asked for permission to take the offices of his
On the voyage to west Africa officers read up on the history and geography of the
area and lectured the men. War correspondents also accompanied the imperial force
for the first time and reports of the campaign were to glamorise the role of such
officers as Wolseley. One the task force arrived off the Gold coast the Ashanti
king was informed of the terms for peace -
When Wolseley ordered the native troops to attack the villages along the coast that the Ashanti had taken control of, he realised how inadequate the native forces were and that he would need regular troops to accomplish the mission. Whilst preparations were being made for the expedition the regular troops did not disembark but were kept at sea to prevent the possibility of the men being laid low by various diseases that were prevalent along the coast.
Once roadways into the interior had been built the campaign began with Wolseley dividing
his forces into four columns -
When Cyprus was ceded to Britain after the Russo-
Wolseley’s wife, Louisa
The Old Summer Palace in Beijing
Wolseley in west Africa
British troops lifting the siege of Lucknow
Then moment when the European population were fired on having been assured safe passage out of Cawnpore
Skimishes during the 1873/74 Anglo-
Wolseley’s first active campaign was in Burma
Wolseley during the Ashanti campaign