General Garnet Wolseley - British Empire 1815-1914

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General Garnet Wolseley

The Battle of Abu Klea

The Death of General Gordon

The Ashante Wars

Cawnpore 1857

The looting of the Summer Palace, Peking

The Nile Campaign

The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir

The leading soldier of the c19th
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.
Sevastopol, Crimea
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.
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  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.
The attack on the British in Cawnpore as they were boarding boats that were to take them to safety
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. 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.
The Summer palace that was destroyed by a British and French army with up to a million items looted including dogs given to Queen Victoria.
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 choice  -  a group of men who were given the collective title of ‘The Wolseley Ring’. Some of these officers were sent to west Africa to assess the situation and they came to the conclusion that the local forces were not capable of what was required and that regular troops would be needed.

West Africa
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  -he was to withdraw form the British protectorate by 12 November,release all prisoners and provide an indemnity of gold.If he was not to accept the terms he was warned the force would invade the land of the Ashanti and destroy the capital Kumasi. 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 - a dangerous strategy but one that was successful on this occasion. On 20th January 1874 Wolseley’s column crossed the Prah river. The going was difficult with thick foliage and the onset of malaria.Ten days later the force came into contact with the Ashanti and prepared for battle. The Ashanti numbered 5,000 warriors whilst Wolseley had 134 officers,  1375 men and 708 native soldiers. After a day of fighting the Ashanti withdrew in the face of accurate shooting by the British who were armed with rifles as opposed to muskets. Wolseley now decided to use a flying column to take Kumasi. When it was within eight miles of the capital the Ashanti attacked but were repulsed and the Highlanders pressed forth with their attack and entered the town on the evening of 5th February. King Kofi had fled and in his absence  his Palace was mined and the town mined. A quick treaty was signed with the Ashanti as the weather was worsening. In March Wolseley sailed back to England where he was promoted to Major General and given a grant of £25,000.
The Battle of Isandhlwana in which a whole British column was wiped out
When Cyprus was ceded to Britain after the Russo-Turkish war Wolseley was sent to act as the first Governor and to ascertain whether there was a suitable base for a port and a military base.He came to the conclusion that there wasn’t.


In June Wolseley was appointed Inspector-General of the Auxiliary Forces and given the task of introducing Cardwell’s reforms to Britain’s auxiliary soldiers. A year later he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Natal to help achieve Carnarvon’s ideas on federation in south Africa,where he needed to persuade the colonists to change their constitution by adding eight new members to the legislature. He would do this by giving them inducements of new railways and lavishing money on entertaining them. Having seen the bill pas through the Natal legislature Wolseley set off on a fact finding tour of Natal on which he was told that just 1000 troops would be needed to deal with the Zulus. This advice which he took back to London became the official policy with terrible consequences. He returned in August 1875 to take up a position in the India Office.

Following the catastrophe of Isandlwana, Wolseley was sent to Natal as Chelmsford’s successor abut when he arrived in Natal he heard that Chelmsford was on his way with a substantial force to Ulundi to salvage his reputation by destroying the Zulu camp. There was nothing Wolseley could do but his main mission was to bring peace to the area by capturing Cetewayo and forcing the Zulu chiefs to sign away their power in peace treaties. He achieved this quite quickly but the destruction of the Zulu gave heart to the Boers who began to question British authority. Wolseley met the Boer leaders and informed them that under no circumstances was the annexation of the Transvaal which had been effected in 1877 revocable. The Pedi were raiding north eastern Transvaal and it was Wolseley who raised a force of 12,000 to subdue them and destroy the stronghold of Sekhukhane. Having achieved this he was recalled to England in May 1880, just months before the Boers were to overturn British authority. Wolseley had hoped to become Commander-in-Chief of the Indian army but Roberts conservative approach to army reform got his the appointment. Instead Wolseley had to accept the post of Quartermaster-General making him responsible for  supplying and issuing the troops with stores and equipment, garrison movements ad the transport of stores abroad.

A nationalist revolt in Egypt
He was Quartermaster -General for just two years when he was promoted to Adjucant-General where he remained except for two commands in the field until 1890. Those commands were the campaign to deal with the crisis in Egypt in 1882 and the relief of General Gordon in 1884/5. As Adjucant-General, Wolseley was responsible for training, discipline, education, recruitment  as well as designing new equipment and clothing. The campaign in Egypt arose because there was a collapse of authority in Egypt when there was a nationalist revolt against the weak rule of Khedive Tewfik and the presence of so many foreigners (90,000). The revolt was led by Colonel Ahmed Arabi and led to nationalists being given more responsibility, including Arabi becoming the Minister of War.

Colonel Ahmed Arabi
The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir
In June 1882 a row over a fare between an Egyptian donkey boy and a Maltese led to a riot in Alexandria in which nearly fifty foreigners were killed and their property plundered. this was reported in the London press as anarchy and panicked the London stock exchange. Prime Minister Gladstone hoped that the French would work with Britain to resolve the situation but the French assembly voted to keep out of the situation. Britain was left to do what she felt was necessary to maintain her interests in Egypt and to ensure that trade routes to Africa and the Far East were kept open. A naval force was despatched to Alexandria and landed sufficient men to take control of the city but with disorder throughout Egypt, Gladstone who himself had investments in Egypt deemed the country in need of order being established. He therefore decided to send an expeditionary force to the area to regain control of Egypt and protect British people and property. Two armies converged on Egypt and warships gained control of the canal. Wolseley was given command of a 31,000 force of men which landed on the northern coast and in a series of superb moves, including one night march took Arabi's army by surprise at Tel-el-Kebir defeated it soundly.
Following the battle, Wolsely moved on Cairo and once the situation had been brought under British control, Wolseley returned home with most of the army with  12,000 left behind to ensure compliance with the newly established British presence. It was not long though before Wolseley was back in Egypt.

Following Wolseley’s defeat of Urabi and the establishment of British advisers to the new Khedive, Britain found herself drawn into the politics of Sudan, a virtual colony of Egypt but where the rise of Islamic fundamentalism under a fanatical leader, the Mahdi, had first defeated an Egyptian force under the command of Colonel Hicks and then threatened Sudan. The British government decided to try to persuade the Egyptian government to give up Sudan.

The Battleof Abu Klea in which Wolseley's desert column, commanded by Stewart, fought a force of Arabi's dervishes.
The mission to rescue Gordon
In London at the time this debate was happening was General Gordon who had been Governor-General of Sudan just a few years previously. Gordon met with Wolseley, (they were old friends),  and Gordon and Gordon made it clear that he would be willing to go to Sudan and report on the situation. The cabinet agreed to this and in January 1884 Gordon left London for Cairo where he met Baring, British commissioner for Egyptian finances, who gave Gordon different orders. The mission now became one of preparing a native administration for power rather than just leave Sudan to descend into anarchy.

The death of Gordon as portrayed by George Joy in 1893. The interpretation, despite witnesses giving a different interpretation of how Gordon died, became the version preferred by the British public.
Gordon had decided in his mind that the Sudan should become independent and he even got in contact with the Mahdi with a view to making him Governor of Kardofan. Gordon arrived in Khartoum on 18 February 1884 but by April the town was surrounded by the forces of the Mahdi.

Once the news of this got back home the Cabinet began to discuss the question of sending out a relief expedition prompted by Wolseley who was sending memos to everyone. Eventually the Cabinet agreed and Wolseley left for Cairo in September. Once in Egypt Wolseley began to prepare for the expedition up the Nile and across the desert. Camels had to bought and soldiers trained in riding them whilst boats had to be built to carry the army of 11,000 down the Nile. Wadi Halfa was used as a forward supply base. The expedition was beset with problems.There were problems with the selection of offices despite most being from the Wolseley Ring, and the purchase of camels and once the troops were under  way the boats were clearly overloaded and moved very slowly.

Recrimination at home over Gordon's death
A camel corps was to proceed  across the desert to reach Khartoum earlier than the main force but this ran into a large force at Abu Klea where 14,000 Dervishes attacked Stewart’s force of 1,500. The British line held but progress thereafter was slow and with the force now reduced to just 900,could not afford another engagement. On January 24 the force reached  the Nile to be told that Khartoum had fallen to 40,000 Dervishes and that Gordon had been killed. When the news reached England on 5th February the nation was horrified, and particularly the Queen. At home much of the blame for the failure of the expedition fell on Gladstone and later on Wolseley  whilst Wolseley himself blamed Gladstone and Sir Charles Wilson who had taken over he desert column. Wolseley was blamed for reaching Gordon too late by taking too much time with his preparations. He returned to England in July 1885, the campaign being his last in the field.
Images of Garnet Wolseley throughout his career
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An assessment of an army career
The Gordon campaign was Wolseley’s first failure. It had been a largely successful career in which he had spent all his time fighting colonial wars, if you include the Crimean War as such. His achievements came at a time when reporters began travelling with armies in the field to report events. Consequently he was portrayed as a Victorian hero to the public, fighting to defend and extend the empire. He believed in the Mission to Civilise and saw himself as a Christian soldier. He regarded most native peoples as incapable of development and it was his role to bring them under British rule for their own benefit. Wolseley was always meticulous in preparing for his campaigns earning the title, ‘All Sir Garnet’. His failure in the Gordon, if failure it was, was because he spent weeks ensuring that the boats, camels, and supplies were in the right place and the men trained for the task in hand. He was the ideal imperial soldier in the mind of the public but he did not endear himself to his men. He had their respect but not their love for he was distant. He was also anti-democratic preferring a despotic rule to one of democracy. It was difficult to compare him with the likes of Wellington as he only fought colonial  wars against native armies poorly equipped.He never as a commander faced a European army with modern weapons. However when compared with the likes of General Roberts, the only other general to  rival  Wolseley for the title of the best Imperial General, he did command campaigns in a variety of places and climates from Canada, to west Africa to the deserts of Egypt. He also was used as a colonial administrator in a number of places.

For the rest of his army career, Wolseley was based in the War Office and Ireland until he eventually was given the command he had wanted for years, Commander-in Chief of the army. It probably came too late as he was not a ell man after 1895 and he had to prepare the army for the Second Boer War  and he was blames for the deficiencies of the army despite trying to get the government to send troops to South Africa long before the government actually did. His reputation though must rest with what he achieved as commander in the field and for helping to bring the army into the modern world whilst he was based in the War Office.

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